Downfalls High barely qualifies as a film and attempts little but manages to ride MGK’s guiding charisma to some playful places.
If you were one of the untold number who tuned in to the Facebook Live premiere (or subsequent recording) of Machine Gun Kelly’s debut “film” Downfalls High, it’s safe to assume you knew what you were betting on. The rapper-cum-2020 pop-punk monolith has emphatically rebranded himself as the king of “it was never a phase, it’s a lifestyle” emo-heads and aughts punksters, but far from existing as a mere throwback commodity, MGK has also cornered a part of the pop market devoted to lovers of grand kitsch. And so, to a degree, any qualitative assessment of Downfalls High, a musical film inspired by and scored to the artist’s 2020 hit record Tickets to My Downfall, feels like a misreckoning with the material. Like the album, the film is a celebration of histrionic spectacle, where unhinged emotion is romantic virtue and individualism is martyrdom — and where you get such existential, mind-melting exchanges as, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” “Dead.”
Much has been made in the film’s marketing of Grease as inspirational touchstone, and granted, it’s a superficial comparison that makes enough sense. Here, an angsty emo beta named Fenix (played by TikTok star Chase “Lil Huddy” Hudson, looking like a prettier Yungblud) finds surprising high school love with Scarlett (Sydney Sweeney), a queen bee who, of course, finds appeal in the outcast’s alt persona. Then, tragedy strikes, and one half of this pair is left to reckon with the fallout. But that description implies far more depth and development than is actually present — there’s very little dialogue across the 45-minute film, with most of the runtime dedicated to MGK and Travis Barker performing Tickets to My Downfall’s 13 tracks in school gymnasiums and, in one memorably gonzo set piece, a bathroom full of synchronized vomiters. It’s perhaps not surprising that as an artist willing to single-handedly reclaim and, thus, rule over a gone-away genre of pubescent-facing music, MGK would here keep the attention predominantly on himself, and so the narrative proper proceeds mostly on fast-forward. Scenes mostly literalize the accompanying tracks — “Concert for Aliens” finds Fenix performing in his band’s first show, “Nothing Inside” witnesses featured singer Iann Dior removing organs and bones from MGK in Operation-like style, “My Ex’s Best Friend” sees Scarlett’s right-hand gal trying to hook up with Fenix — and there’s little emotional or logical continuity from one scene/track to the next. MGK has described the filming as “almost like shooting 14 music videos back-to-back,” and indeed, the “almost” is unnecessary, as that is very clearly what has happened here, with non-musical interludes constituting no more than a few minutes of runtime. In shape (and spirit), then, Downfalls High has far more in common with My Chemical Romance’s high school-set video for “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)” than Grease (to be clear, that isn’t a criticism).
Shot by music video veteran Taylor Randall and co-directed by MGK (professionally credited here as Colson Baker) and Mod Sun, Downfalls High predictably bears little formal resemblance to a film. The entire visual design seems to be “pink” (with some regular secondary splashes of yellow), and given the film’s heavy use of musical performance, the cinematography mostly alternates between full shots of the band rocking out and shaky cowboy shots that capture the star and his guitar in action — though, in one sequence the camera does execute handheld half-revolution around MGK’s face, just to ensure we get the full scope of his chiseled model cheekbones. Other interjectional highlights include dramatic, fourth-wall-breaking head turns and some grainy setup shots of adolescent freedom that foretell imminent tragedy. Thankfully, watching Travis Barker’s kinetic mastery of a drum kit — his movements sometimes torrential, sometimes balletic — covers all manner of sins and is consistently the most magnetic thing on screen.
If this all sounds like I’m poking fun, I am, but only because Downfalls High’s principal entreaty is to engage on just such a level; and it’s nothing if not fun. It’s a film that howlingly opens in the aftermath of a kid with swooping, grease-black hair cutting his ear off, at graduation no less, as a protestation against lost love (and, you have to assume, the establishment, but this is a love story), and then retreating eight months to tell the story of this eventual self-mutilation. The villain of the story is some Shakespearean conception of cruel fate, but there’s also a letterman jacket-wearing jock who pops up a handful of times to smack things out of characters’ hands and whisper “Fuck you.” And no attempt is even made to reconcile the presence of MGK and Barker with the teenaged happenings on screen — they are at one point shot by a low-angle dash cam while driving around and performing in a hollowed-out cargo van with a full drum kit in the rear, and in another are shown moodily lazing in the blue-and-red flashes of an ambulance in the aftermath of the film’s central tragedy — fully divesting of the notion that this was ever meant to be anything other than a series of music videos. In its finished form, it’s unclear if anything grander was ever intended. Tickets to My Downfall certainly provides the emotional fodder and pop sensibility around which to build a soppy teen musical — think High School Musical meets Degrassi — but the connective tissue here is left as mere impression, with MGK’s fashionista temperament more clearly explicated on screen than the devastation of the film’s star-crossed lovers. It’s a shame that this final product is only a precis of soap opera, offering little more than mere signifiers of melodrama, but few artists in any form are executing their vision with the unashamed hubris of one Colson Baker. He’s a legitimate multi-hyphenate, and in the entertainment industry’s current cycle of artistic rehash, his true-blue reclamation efforts mean it’s only a matter of time before he delivers the masterpiece his fans expect and deserve.
You can currently stream Machine Gun Kelly’s Downfalls High on Facebook.