If Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye and Euphoria creator Sam Levinson aimed to stir the pot with their upcoming HBO series The Idol, consider it mission accomplished. The creative duo made a splash at the Cannes Film Festival this week with their buzzed-about series chronicling the price of pop stardom thanks to what Variety described as the copious amounts of “on-screen nudity, bodily fluids and Hollywood sycophants” in the first two (out of five) episodes that screened at the event typically focused on movies.
At a Cannes press conference on Tuesday (May 23) after the premiere, The Weeknd (who now goes by his birth name) said he and Levinson had a goal of stirring the pot and creating “something special, something fun, to make people laugh, piss some people off.” Star Lily-Rose Depp also defended the long shoot and pushed back on rumors of mayhem on the set, saying, “It’s always a little sad and disheartening to see mean, false things said about someone you care about. It wasn’t reflective of my experience.”
Before anyone got their eyes on the show, Rolling Stone posted an explosive story in March based on 13 unnamed sources who described an allegedly chaotic set drowning in ballooning budgets and endless script re-writes that contributed to a project the magazine described as “torture porn.”
Levinson took on those reports dead-on during the presser, saying, “When my wife read me the article, I looked at her and I said, ‘I think we’re about to have the biggest show of the summer.’” The showrunner readily copped to making a project that is “provocative. It’s not lost on us.” As for the claims in the article, Levinson said, “It felt completely foreign to me. My only slight grievance is they intentionally omitted anything that didn’t fit their narrative. We’ve seen a lot of that recently.”
The show focuses on Rose Depp’s Jocelyn, a pop star dealing with a psychotic break following the death of her mother, who is struggling to get a new album and tour going when she visits a sleazy Hollywood club and meets Tesfaye’s character, Tedros, a cult leader who has lascivious ideas about rebooting the singer’s career.
Borrowing a page from Kanye West’s phrase book, Tesfaye said he wanted to make a “dark, twisted fantasy” about the music industry… to take everything I know about it and heighten it.” As for the reportedly generous amounts of nudity, Levinson said “we live in a very sexualized world… the influence of pornography is strong in the psyche of young people. We see this in pop music.”
Depp appeared to agree, calling her character a “born and bred performer” whose frequent nudity is an important part of Jocelyn’s origin story. That extends to every aspect of her life, not just her professional life,” she said. “The way she dresses is trying to tell you something all the time. The occasional bareness of the character physically mirrors the bareness we get to see emotionally.”
And while the pilot episode reportedly references the white-hot spotlight often shined on young, female music stars such as Britney Spears, Levinson was adamant that Jocelyn was not directly inspired by the troubled real-life pop idol. “We’re not trying to tell a story about any particular pop star,” he said. “We’re looking more at how the world perceives pop stars and the pressure it puts on that individual.”
In a review, The Hollywood Reporter said the series is “more regressive than transgressive,” with a pointed bottom line takeaway that The Idol comes off as an “older, even more stylized version of Euphoria‘s second season,” and simply “tries too hard.” The site also noted, however, that, as is often the case among enthusiastic Cannes audiences, Monday’s premiere elicited a “standard-measure 5-minute standing ovation” and what it described as “polite applause.”