Who is the real Machine Gun Kelly? A shocking new documentary doesn’t provide the answer

·5 min read
 (Michael Muller/Hulu)
(Michael Muller/Hulu)

The only me I liked was me on stage,” Machine Gun Kelly says in Life in Pink, a new Hulu rockumentary that covers the last few years of the headline-grabbing musician’s life, starting with the release of his hit pop punk album Tickets to My Downfall in 2020.

“I was a character,” Machine Gun Kelly – whose real name is Colson Baker – continues. “Some people play a role for six months. I played a role for 16 years.”

Released this week, Life in Pink is, broadly, an attempt to address that and a chance for the Texas-born Baker to candidly address his fans and, to some extent, his haters. Already, it’s working. Before most fans had a chance to see it, the film was making headlines for Baker’s admission that he attempted suicide while struggling with the death of his father. Halfway through the movie, the 32-year-old painfully recalls phoning his fiancée, the actor Megan Fox, who was away on a movie set.

“I wouldn’t leave my room and I started getting really, really, really dark. Megan went to Bulgaria to shoot a movie, and I started getting this really wild paranoia. Like, I kept getting paranoid that someone was gonna come and kill me,” he says directly to the camera.

It’s the kind of traumatic personal anecdote that we increasingly expect celebrities to share, and the kind that’s most likely to then get re-shared as news on social media. Curiously, it’s far from the film’s most evocative or relatable moment. Presented without much context, there’s more shock value to Baker’s admission than real pathos.

For most of the movie, in fact, and despite his commitment to soul-bearing, Baker still feels like a “character”: rash, obsessive, and instinctual. At one point, we see him singing so long and hard that his throat bleeds. Another clip shows the cops who pull him over for driving 125 miles an hour recognise him from the last time he did that same reckless thing.

It doesn’t help that the film – from director Sam Cahill, who was also behind a number of Machine Gun Kelly’s music videos – keeps shifting forms. In some moments it feels like an album documentary, featuring direct interviews with Baker’s collaborators, such as Blink-182’s Travis Barker, and members of Baker’s own band. Later, it morphs into a concert film, with the requisite shots of MGK visiting the Cleveland haunts of his youth and handing out petrol vouchers to passersby. Look how far he’s come, the film’s eager to prove. But most of the time, Life in Pink moves with the frenetic pacing of a pop video, only adding to the impression that the bad boy rocker really does live his life in three and a half minute bursts of intensity.

Machine Gun Kelly in his new Hulu documentary ‘Life in Pink’ (Michael Muller/Hulu)
Machine Gun Kelly in his new Hulu documentary ‘Life in Pink’ (Michael Muller/Hulu)

The only scenes that do much to dispel that myth are interviews with Baker’s 12-year-old daughter, Casie, who’s the only one who seems to have a coherent theory of the man behind the character.

“He’s so focused on that one thing that it’s like he blocks everything around him and he stops caring about everything around him,” she says toward the end of the film, when Baker is obsessing over whether Mainstream Sellout, this year’s follow-up to 2020’s Tickets…, will debut at Number 1 in the album charts.

“He stopped doing drugs, so now he gets addicted to other things to supply that feeling,” she adds, though we’re never told what narcotics he had a problem with. “So now he’s addicted to wanting tobacco or addicted to working. Like he’s always working. When I’m around now, it’s like, ‘Work, work, work, work, work.’”

The reflections of tween Casie, which at first struck me as uncomfortable and maybe even exploitative, ended up being the only ones to erode the caricatures that so often attach themselves to artists: that they’re perfectionists, that they need to be loved, that they’re insecure. And to be fair, these are all things that Baker says about himself at some point during Life in Pink.

Crucially, though, Casie is the only person interviewed whose relationship with Baker doesn’t involve the music industry. Even good friends, like Travis Barker, relate to him through the work they have in common. Casie doesn’t see the back-handed compliment of being a “perfectionist” in her dad’s obsessive attitude toward work, but a straight-forward problem for her family. “It was stressing everybody out,” Casie says of Baker’s fixation on scoring a Number 1.

Baker, in turn, is at his most naturalistic and relatable when he’s in self-described “dad mode”, showing Casie around backstage at a festival or racing to catch her volleyball match.

In the end, it’s only in these fleeting slices of daily life that Baker ever seems like more than a two-dimensional rock star. His suicide attempt is tragic and terrifying, and perhaps, for some people, will help them find compassion for the controversial musician whose documentary opens with a highlight reel of his haters. They call him a “poser”, “garbage”, and “trash”.

But even watching Machine Gun Kelly spill his most private secrets in the hopes he’ll be better understood doesn’t seem to reveal much more about him. That he feels the need to says more about the dominant celebrity culture than it does about himself.

‘Life in Pink’ is streaming now on Hulu in the US and coming soon to Disney+ in the UK

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