‘Not the Typical High School Story’: Inside the Making of Olivia Rodrigo’s Concert Film 'Sour Prom'
By Larisha Paul
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By Larisha Paul
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Allycia Gutierrez grew up watching videos of celebrities surprising their fans on YouTube. She’d seen Justin Bieber make surprise visits to his supporters and was struck by the exclusivity of being one of the few people who could say their favorite artist has been to their home. She hadn’t considered ever finding herself in a similar situation -- but when her doorbell rang on June 22, she opened the door to find blazing pop newcomer Olivia Rodrigo standing on her front lawn holding a poster that read, “Prom would be brutal without you.”
Looking slightly nervous herself, the 18-year-old pop singer presented Gutierrez, 21, with a bouquet of flowers and a collection of exclusive merchandise alongside an invitation to the premiere of the Sour Prom Concert Film. “Once she left and I was able to let everything set in, I did start to tear up,” Guitierrez says. “She didn’t have to do any of this, but she did.”
Directed by Kimberly Stuckwisch and Toby L, Sour Prom is a 27-minute live concert film featuring performances of six full songs and a mashup from Rodrigo’s platinum-certified debut album Sour -- which debuted atop the Billboard 200 albums chart with the year's best first-week numbers, and has spent three non-consecutive weeks at No. 1 on the listing.Since its YouTube premiere on June 29, the film has surpassed 10 million views.
Rodrigo had graduated from high school two weeks before the film’s premiere, mentioning in interviews over the past few months that her rise as one of pop’s biggest stars often coincided with completing her statistics homework. While exciting in its own right, being homeschooled on set of the Disney+ series High School Musical: The Musical: The Series as her music career was blowing up earlier this year excluded her from the traditional high school senior experience, much like the pandemic had limited celebrations for recently graduated classes. “Since Olivia never got to go to prom, she knew she wanted to throw an event for everyone to celebrate together,” Stuckwisch tells Billboard. “Olivia still wanted to partake, albeit in her own way,” adds Toby L. “We and Olivia really wanted to ensure it wasn't quite like the typical prom or high school story.”
Sour Prom visually and sonically expands on the world presented on Sour –– validating a range of emotions spanning from heartbreak to jealousy to self-assurance –– through the context of an all-inclusive high school prom experience viewers could find themselves in. “I never got to go to prom in high school, I was going through a really rough time in my senior year,” explains Gutierrez, who graduated high school in 2018. “I was so heartbroken over it. Then, all of a sudden, it’s 2021 and I’m being asked by my favorite singer to go to a prom party with her.”
Gutierrez was one of eight young women provided with designer gowns and chauffeurs to attend the Sour Prom premiere in Los Angeles. Rodrigo’s crew of prom dates were tasked with keeping the event under wraps until it was officially announced to the public on June 23. At the time of the announcement, Sour Prom was still in post-production with production company Up The Game, as the singer’s creative team worked around the clock to meet a 7-day deadline for a project they would normally have 8 to 10 weeks to complete. Sour Prom had been initially planned to be filmed in a real high school gym, but the location fell through two days before shooting began due to the school’s prior commitment to host a summer camp, leading to the compressed time schedule.
“We hit a lot of road bumps. It was no one's fault, that's just the way the cards fell and everyone was super level-headed about it," says cinematographer Justin Hamilton. "I don't think that it's possible to really describe how tough it was on the producers’ end with losing [the original high school] location, and then coming up with so many alternate plans. We were running into permitting issues just because of the time crunch that we were on.”
The prom set ultimately seen in the film was actually built on a 3-dimensional soundstage and performed with 75 people total. “A big part of the artistic creative challenge was, ‘How do you make that seem full and real and not sad?’” says Richoux. “It’s supposed to be ‘Sour Prom,’ but it wasn’t supposed to be depressing because nobody was there.”
While the visual event came together behind the scenes, its press cycle was dominated by plagiarism accusations from Hole frontwoman Courtney Love, who said the film’spromotional photo of Rodrigo as an emotional prom queen was starkly similar to the cover art of the band’s 1994 album Live Through This. “Stealing an original idea and not asking permission is rude,” Love wrote on Facebook. “There’s no way to be elegant about it.” Rodrigo acknowledged the comments on Instagram -- where Love also posted about the similarities -- commenting: “love u and live through this sooooo much.”
While she may have drawn influence from Hole, prior to announcing Sour Prom, Rodrigo also uploaded stills from Twilight and the 1976 cult classic Carrie to her Instagram story to highlight more direct inspirations. In a 2019 interview with Another Magazine, Ellen von Unwerth, who photographed the Live Through This cover, shared that Love had initially approached her with the idea of re-enacting the latter film’s prom scene, too. “That became part of the PR conversation of it, for sure,” Sour Prom production designer John Richoux says of the overlap in creative vision. “But I mean, it really came from that one Carrie reference and [Olivia] wanted it. She wanted that feel.”
The horror film was one of a number of unusual visual references pulled together for the concert film. “I basically went into a rabbit hole about developing something a little more hyper-real and journey-like, utilising the melodrama and intensity of David Lynch and Tim Burton as reference points,” director Toby L explains. When Stuckwisch was brought on, she also incorporated influences from The Twilight Zone and the psychedelic tunnel scene in Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory to evoke a feeling of unease.
In the film’s opening scene, Rodrigo lounges solo in the backseat of a limo on her way to prom. Her own vocals singing Sour single “Deja Vu” pour from the radio for an elevated effect of realism as she pulls moments from the album’s “Happier” to sing live overtop. The tracks function as mirrors to each other: The former calls out an ex recycling their memories in a new relationship, while the latter concludes with the send off: “So find someone great, but don't find no one better / I hope you're happy, but don't be happier.” During the mashup, the camera twists and turns as the color of the streets being passed by warp through a palette of pinks and purples. Rodrigo switches back and forth at unexpected moments, keeping anticipation high for which moments she’ll pull from the next song as the merging continues.
At the singer’s request, Sour Prom music directors Aron Forbes and Derek Renfroe toyed with the melodic structure of each song to have them fit as a true mashup rather than a medley. “If you know the songs, it's going to make you feel like you're in a different place because you've taken the melody and presented it in a completely different way,” says Forbes of how those familiar with Rodrigo’s music will receive the reimagined presentation. “All of a sudden you're gonna feel a little off, like, wait, where are we? What's happening?” It’s the only scene in the film where any of Rodrigo’s vocals were pre-recorded.
When Rodrigo emerges from the limo, she passes by subsets of prom goers –– including cameos from her real-life best friends musicians Conan Gray and Lydia Night and actresses Iris Apatow and Madison Hu –– and travels through four subtle sections of hues: pink, light blue, purple and dark blue. “Kimberly [Stuckwisch] wanted to divide the prom into the quadrants of these colors to represent the cliques that are in high school,” Hamilton explains. “It represents her presence coming in and breaking those walls that are put up between people in high school.”
The introductory strings of Sour opening track “Brutal” lead viewers to the dancefloor before the drums crash through, in tandem with Rodrigo’s emergence from a curtain of silver foil streamers. “From that point forward,” Hamilton says, “it becomes Olivia’s Sour Prom.” Stuckwisch says that the lyrics from Sour served as a script-like blueprint for the film. “Understanding that I wanted to reach an audience through the emotion of the artist, and focusing on their words and how they perform them with real gut wrenching emotion has become the staple of everything I do,” she says.
The intention shines brightest during the ballad “Traitor,” as the couples slow dancing around Rodrigo break apart and come back together to the song’s story of betrayal, keeping the singer focused in the center. “For me, this one hit home because I always felt kind of awkward when slow dancing,” says choreographer Monika Smith, recalling the weird discomfort of not knowing what to talk about or where to put her hands in the moment. “I wanted to illustrate the awkwardness that we feel through the movement in a beautiful way.”
Sour Prom is largely a romanticization of the high school experience that rewrites the narrative of exclusion and social pressures. The most poignant representation of this comes from the self-aware Sour track “Jealousy, Jealousy,” especially in the setting of a prom where unconscious comparison is inevitable. “I wish somebody was doing this when I was in high school because I think it would [have helped] me with dealing with the angsty-ness of being a teenager,” says Kimberly Lee, 22, who appeared as an extra in the film. “Having a major pop star put that into a song form would have been very helpful in reaffirming my feelings.”
Even though the prom scenes themselves were filmed in a replica of a school gym and limited to a few dozen people -- much less than the typical size of a high school prom -- Rodrigo played the role of a melancholic-turned-triumphant high school student with a sense of realism. “It really did embody what a high school prom would normally look like,” says Jocelyn Recendez, 18, another one of Rodrigo’s promposal recipients. “Maybe you don’t have a date but you still go and then you see your ex dancing with someone else and you absolutely want to start crying.”
Since the colossal explosion of “Drivers License” in January, Rodrigo has continued to build her artistic identity around her commitment to authenticity. This took shape in the Sour Prom Concert Film through an explicit attention to detail. During her stripped down performance of “Enough For You,” Rodrigo steps away from the chaos of the prom and seeks refuge in a photography lab. As she enters, the camera flashes across printed photos of dozens of Rodrigo’s fans in prom attire. It’s a more noticeable detail Rodrigo insisted on including alongside more subtle intentions. “When she walks into the photo lab, you can hear the mic in the beginning,” says music director Derek Renfroe. “Before she’s sitting down, she picks up the guitar and you can hear a creak. All these little details are where it speaks to that authenticity.”
For the Sour Prom grand finale, Rodrigo runs through “Drivers License” and “Good 4 U” in a performance with the University of Southern California marching band held on the school’s football field with bleachers full of extras cheering her on. The final scene also features an expansion of the cheerleader theme first introduced in the “Good 4 U” music video as Rodrigo shouts the angsty lyrics of her second Hot 100 chart-topper while a professional competitive cheer squad performs around her. “It’s a whole other level of storytelling on top of the music,” says Sour Prom art director Nick DeCell of the film’s visual themes. “Especially in times of isolation, it [provides] worlds for fans to be a part of and it takes you to a different place.”
Keeping the high school aesthetic in line with a grandiose, Super Bowl-like moment lended itself to the film’s narrative goal. It was important for the creative team behind Sour Prom to not have the film conclude with Rodrigo coming to any romantic conclusion, but with her walking off of the football field arm in arm with her best friends before the credits roll. “It’s about friendship, and realising that, at the end of the day, it’s not who you’re with,” says Toby L. “It’s about how you feel in yourself.”
Rodrigo had been unable to perform the majority of Sour in a live setting since its release due to COVID-19 restrictions, but the world she’s been building for the project has been in place since the release of “Drivers License.” The lyrical resonance made through the music itself only echos louder in an emotive live setting without the polish of pre-recorded vocals. The formatting of Sour Prom and the selected setlist anchors itself in that intention and a focused control of the audience’s attention. “We wanted teenagers to watch from home and know that they belonged here,” says Stuckwisch. “We wanted adults to relive those moments from their young adult lives and to feel welcomed.”
With multiple identities respresnted through the casting of both the film’s extras and dancers and music reflecting the expansive range of young emotion, Sour Prom offered the opportunity for viewers to replace a negative with a positive and rewrite their ideas of how prom should look, feel and sound. It’s a sentiment felt among the crew who created the film and the millions who viewed it from home. “People want to go to prom and want to have that experience of anticipating it, dressing up and all of that,” says Gutierrez, who describes attending the film’s premiere as an experience she’ll never forget. “I didn’t get that. But with Olivia, I think I got it better than I ever would have if I had gone in high school.”