If you’ll pardon a direct piece of fanmail, I must out myself as a TLC superfan. For those of us who grew up rejecting scrubs in the ’90s, TLC was one of the few hip-hop groups that felt both bad-ass and parent-safe, sincere and self-possessed, cool and zany. As the top-selling female trio of all time, the group and its Billboard legacy speak for themselves, but it still feels like there’s more to be said about the authentic, empowering camaraderie of Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas, and the late Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes. While later groups like Destiny’s Child and the Pussycat Dolls felt like contrived, slicked-up supergroups of lucky auditioners, TLC’s sexy, saucy vibe made for a one-of-a-kind thrill: a goofy radness you trusted. The loving was strong and they had it going on.
VH1 apparently knew this, because the network debuted its TLC biopic CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story on Monday, and though it’s a traditional and often too-flattering movie with some blunt exposition (“That’s Andre Rison, wide receiver for the Falcons!” a pal says to Left Eye, who would later live with Rison), but the three lead actresses’ performances are so great and convincing that you’re swept up in their sisterly, ragtag energy. Here are the eight biggest lessons I took from the condom-eyed movie.
1. Lil Mama is a great actress. That’s not lip (gloss) service.
From the minute the pint-sized rapper Lil Mama appears on screen as Left Eye, she stuns. She nails Left Eye’s vaudevillian swagger and sardonic neck-roll flair. As she wolfs down a free meal early in the movie, she parries T-Boz’s concern (“How long has it been since you ate?”) with dead-on, deadpan grace. “Too damn long.” Even as Left Eye devolves into a bit of actual insanity later in the movie, Lil Mama keeps up with her gonzo line-readings. She was so good that I actually stopped grading her performance and started accepted that she was doing an unerring imitation. Fabulous.
2. TLC’s “Creep” is better than Radiohead’s “Creep.” I said it.
Just a thought I had while watching the reenactment of TLC’s pajama-clad video. Their “Creep” is a salacious jam about love on the downlow, and Radiohead’s “Creep” is a mewing anthem for losers. One of these is the clear winner.
3. Where are the girl/boy/pop groups who are cool enough to speak frankly about sex today?
Still looking. Videos like these separate TLC from every pop group after them: They were righteous as well as cool.
4. Pebbles, the former pop star who managed TLC, is terrifying and my new hero.
The story goes that onetime “Mercedes Boy” songstress Pebbles jumpstarted TLC’s career by signing the trio to her LaFace imprint Pebbitone and securing them a (relatively standard) contract with low payback on royalties. But when TLC became huge, they still made almost no money and found themselves bankrupt even after releasing a diamond-selling album. TLC’s Behind the Music episode blamed Pebbles directly, and the movie makes her seem like a cold, Wilhelmina Slater-type svengali. And that’s why I/we now love her.
Note the condescending glance. The perfect hair. The semi-scowl. At one point she looked so amazing in sleek businesswear that I screamed “PEBBITONE EXECUTIVE REALNESS” at the screen. Loved her and the actress who played her (Rochelle Aytes of ABC’s Mistresses). But girlfriend: Why did you have to treat them so bad? Couldn’t believe Pebbles tried kicking Chilli out of the group for being “loose,” that ugliest of antifeminist slams.
5. It’s actually comforting that a biopic can achieve this level of Uncanny Valley similarity.
That’s Drew Sidora as T-Boz and Keke Palmer as Chilli on the right. Sidora has T-Boz’s even-keel languor down cold, and Palmer is just right for Chilli’s sweet soulfulness.
6. But sometimes you have to watch the real thing.
As much as Lil Mama’s impersonation was astounding, the real Left Eye is so endearing and bad-ass when explaining the group’s bankruptcy. “Get ready to do your math!”
7. “Unpretty” is the most underrated TLC song.
I think “Unpretty” is still the most recent song about self-image issues that I’ve liked. Pink has had a couple of OK jams about the topic, but “Unpretty” is both tougher and more vulnerable.
8. T-Boz and Chilli’s new song “Meant To Be” is aptly named.
Love. Just the right mix of earnest and danceable, like much of TLC’s best work.