The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
R. Kelly's Trapped In the Closet

Written by James MacDowell.

Photo from the article NOTE: An extended version of this article, which also takes in chapters 13+ of Trapped, can be found here.

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The city skyline in front of us, illuminated by a soft orange dawn, looks unmistakeably like the two dimensional model that it is. On the soundtrack, bucolic saccharine strings well with Casio artificiality. The title of the film unfurls from left to right like an old Noir B-picture. We’ve seen this kind of thing before, we think: the self-conscious cheese, the knowing fakeness - we know where we stand…

As we pull back through an open bedroom window, leaving the city behind, a bass-heavy, slow-grinding R & B beat kicks in, replacing the Hollywood pastiche strings. This throws us slightly. We thought we were dealing with parody: is this modern backing-track, with finger-clicks and water-droplet beats, being mocked too? Perhaps - it still seems possible...

'7 O'clock in the mornin'...'
'7 O'clock in the mornin'...'
Now we are gliding past a double bed containing a sleeping male figure and advancing, with speed and determination, towards the closed door of a closet. Suddenly, we find ourselves on the other side of the door and staring directly into the deadly serious eyes of a brooding R. Kelly.

He looks up from the floor as if he has been expecting us, his expression troubled, wise, and immediately hilarious. He opens his mouth and begins to sing sagely about the other R. Kelly we glimpsed previously on the bed, as we are shown, step by step, the events he describes:

“7 O’clock in the morning and the rays from the sun wakes me;

I’m stretchin’ and yawnin’ in a bed that don’t belong to me.

A voice says ‘Good mornin’ darling’, from the bathroom;

She comes in and kisses me and, to my surprise, she ain’t you…”

By now we are already likely to feel entirely confused, severed from any firm sense of how this text is asking us to view it; could it be that this is all intended to be taken seriously…? Welcome to Trapped in the Closet (2005), one of the most unique, baffling, and flat-out pleasurable audio-visual experiences you are ever likely to have.

Background to Closet

In early-to-mid 2005 R. Kelly - the underage-girl-marrying, self-described “Pied Piper of R & B” - released five tracks in quick succession to radio stations in the U.S. Each song had exactly the same backing track and tune, and each continued on a story from where the previous one had left off. It turned out that these were merely the first five “chapters” in what Kelly had planned as his magnum opus, and the creation of what he saw as a new genre of music (though his authorship of it is questionable): “hip-hopera”.

'Well, well, well: what the fuck is this...?'
'Well, well, well: what the fuck is this...?'
The songs told the continuing saga of a group of upper-middle class couples whose lives are revealed as being increasingly intertwined by one another’s infidelities. A ‘playa’ gets caught cheating, a wife admits to an ongoing affair, a man hides from a rival in the titular closet, unfaithfulness is revealed by an incriminating prophylactic… Each chapter ended with a very pointed cliffhanger: a moment of discovery or imminent action - an aural dot, dot, dot.

Chapters One to Five quickly became hit records, with fans tuning in to the next instalment to find out what had happened to the characters, in just the way they would a soap opera. This was exactly Kelly’s plan: to keep pulling the listener in to his story, keep bringing them back for more. With great fanfare he premiered Trapped in the Closet: Chapter Six at the 2005 MTV music awards to an adoring crowd, telling them afterwards that if they had liked the twists and turns of the story so far, they would love the continuing plot he had in store for them.

Nothing, however, could have prepared the world for what happened next: Trapped in the Closet: The Video…

Trapped in the Closet: Chapters One to Twelve

Again released in stages, the song’s video gradually worked its way up to twelve chapters - reaching a total running time of around 42 minutes. What sealed its fame, and infamy, was that with visuals had come a new and unpredicted level of surreal comedy. This quickly transformed the song from the status of mere mainstream success story to eccentric, cult hit.

'A million thoughts runnin' through my mind...'
'A million thoughts runnin' through my mind...'
Described by some as the Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) of music videos, it has become the subject of many a parody on comedy shows such as Saturday Night Live and South Park. It has even - most amusingly - been given its own faux-Cliff Notes-style analysis on the web, delineating themes and motifs, as well as posing discussion questions (e.g.: “What do you think Kelly means when he says that a tear fell ‘up out my eye’?”).

With one legion of fans citing it as a breakthrough in the relationship between music and image, another legion hailing it as a new high point for unintentionally hilarious camp, a creator/star who seems oblivious to any furore at all, and another six (at least) chapters announced as being on the way, Trapped in the Closet has become, simply, a mini pop culture phenomenon.

Before I continue, I must urge you - in the strongest possible terms - to watch the entire thing yourself. There are a few reasons for this:

1. It is very difficult to explain to the uninitiated what exactly makes Trapped in the Closet so compulsively wonderful, and I don’t want to have to spend the majority of this piece convincing you.

2. The following will necessarily contain some plot-spoilers and some of the film’s greatest joys lie in its surprises.

3. This video is one of the most enjoyable things I have watched in a long, long time. If we were to judge cinematic merit based purely on pleasure alone, this would be up there with Singin’ in the Rain (1952).

So, go on: do the right thing: click here to watch all twelve chapters. It’s free, and it’s wonderful…

Kelly as Sylvester
Kelly as Sylvester
“This is Some Deep Shit…"

The most obvious place to start with Trapped in the Closet’s badness-as-inverted-goodness is with Kelly himself. I am no R. Kelly fan, but repeated watching and loving of this film is starting to make me think I may be inadvertently turning into one.

Firstly, he is simply a pleasingly foolish figure to look at. Very unlike other svelte, nubile male R & B artists like, say, Usher or Justin Timberlake who move energetically at any chance they get, Kelly - at a broad-shouldered 6’ 1” - cuts an absolutely hulking figure that makes him seem perpetually oafish and ungainly. Look at him in scenes where he has to use his physicality - as when he is threatening his wife after discovering her adultery - and you will see he looks more like an off-work bouncer than a sexy crooner. Indeed, watch his video for ‘Ignition: Remix’ and you will see that the man also cannot dance worth a damn: nothing about him feels effortless - he just looks wrong. Add to this the fact that his attempts at acting in this film - in which he is surrounded by professional actors - consist literally of just furrowing his brow or putting his hands on his hips, and you already have enough reasons to keep you laughing for pretty well its 42 minute running time.

On top of this though, are Kelly’s clearly raging egoism and his belief in his own genius. The casual comparisons that have been made to Ed Wood and his Plan9 are apt in more ways than one: if ever evidence were needed of the potential excesses of the misguided modern auteur, Trapped in the Closet should be exhibit A for the prosecution.

As the Narrator in the closet doorway.
As the Narrator in the closet doorway.
Kelly wrote, produced, co-directed and stars in the video, thus immediately achieving a Wood/ Welles/ Gallo height of creative control and self-absorption. On top of this there is then the fact that he appears not merely as one character, but two: the main protagonist, Sylvester (which is, by the way, Kelly’s middle name) and the story’s nameless narrator who comments on the action throughout (distinguishable mainly by the cigar he is always holding). Combine with these factors the film’s main conceit: that he also sings every other character’s part too, and Trapped in the Closet thus consists of one R. Kelly relating to us a narrative in which another R. Kelly comments of the actions of a third R. Kelly, who is constantly having arguments with characters who all sing with the voice of R. Kelly. He evidently becomes confused by all this himself at times, since he will sometimes refer to his main protagonist in the third person, as Sylvester, and sometimes in the first person, as “Me”.

The epitome of the rampant solipsism comes if you see the film accompanied by the, frankly, unimaginably bizarre commentary recorded for its American DVD release. This commentary is not the normal kind, in which we merely hear the speaker while watching the film - no: the Trapped in the Closet commentary has Kelly very badly superimposed at the bottom-right of the screen, sitting in a leather chair, smoking a fat Cuban cigar, whilst watching his masterwork. Most of the time he is apparently too enthralled by what he has created to say anything at all, merely sitting there with his back to us, puffing away and shaking his head at his brilliance. When he does say something, it will tend to be merely an exact summary of what we have just seen, followed by a “now watch this…” as he turns back round again. Alternatively, it will be something unfeasibly strange like, “Now, I don’t know if y’all noticed, but I’m rhyming all the way through this…”

Kelly watching Kelly in front of a Kelly portrait.
Kelly watching Kelly in front of a Kelly portrait.
On this fascinating piece of film Kelly also tells us that, the more he delved into the story and its themes, the more he realised how profound it was - how we are all, in a sense, trapped in closets, and that there exists “this global closet thing…” Such vague delusions of grandeur are - obviously - unbelievable and instantly risible; they also, however make me love the man a little too. In much the same way as Wood’s Glen or Glenda’s (1953) confessional nature makes it into a strangely moving (as well as a hilariously bad) experience, so does Trapped in the Closet’s apparent basis in an attempt to say something meaningful make it charmingly, touchingly, appalling. It makes the freeze-frame you can get of Kelly, watching Kelly, with a silhouette-painting of Kelly behind him, at least halfway into some kind of a warped paean to the artistic spirit, and not purely a neat image of one nonce’s ego trip.

Hip-Hopera

Trapped in the Closet is also deliciously bad, obviously, because of it’s lyrics, plot and its nature as a sung-through multi-character story sung by one man. These are also, just as obviously, the very things that make it great.

Sylvester argues with his wife (voiced by Kelly).
Sylvester argues with his wife (voiced by Kelly).
Most instantly hilarious is the way Kelly is forced to talk to himself throughout, always in a faux-naturalistic style. This means there are many instances of exchanges like: “He says ‘Yes,’ I says ‘No’, he says ‘Yes’, I’m like ‘No,’ he says…” Just in terms of the words themselves, there is a sense in which this film, by taking the most mundane language as its lyrics, encapsulates all that is inherently funny about opera in the crudest way possible. It is a generally universally acknowledged truth that opera always sounds better in a language you don’t understand, and Trapped in the Closet, with its terrible dialogue-as-verse breaks down for us precisely why this is. It’s not just the fact that it contains sung phrases like, “Man, what the hell is that smell? Somebody done broke wind,” - it’s a cumulative effect created by attempting to make playground-level story and language into high histrionic drama by telling it with soaring strings and pained vocals.

What stops it from being just stupid - and there are things all the way through the film that stop you just as you are about to dismiss it as utter rubbish - is the undeniable originality and compulsiveness of the style. That we’ve never before seen anything quite like this keeps us glued to the screen, fascinated by the otherworldly strangeness of the exercise. To give the actors their due too, it is actually quite incredible that they manage to generally look rather natural whilst ‘speaking’ Kelly’s words. It does actually appear as if they are merely talking normally and believably, but that their real-life soundtrack has for some reason been translated into melodramatic R & B onscreen. As well as this, there are a few instances of combined lyrical wordplay and image that do actually work genuinely well: for example the moment in Chapter Twelve when Chuck is threatening Cathy with a knife. Here the music cuts out completely and we hear just Kelly’s voice, energetic and skilful, yelling:

Chuck, Rufus and Cathy square off.
Chuck, Rufus and Cathy square off.
“‘Come on and try it, motherfucker!’/ ‘I swear to God…’/ ‘Just try it!’/ ‘Lemme at her!’/ ‘Come on, bitch!’/ ‘Skank!’/ ‘Try it!’/ ‘Rufus, lemme go…’/ ‘Motherfucker, just try it!’/ ‘Come on!’/’Try it!’/ ‘Come on!’”

Yes, it’s still a ridiculous moment, relying on the characters being unbelievably violence-prone, etc, but that doesn’t stop it from effectively and innovatively - with the help of some frantic cutting - conveying a real sense of danger. So, lyrically and musically, it is not just the abnormally long running time that manages to elevate it slightly above being an unimaginative dirge throughout.

"All the Trauma That I Been Dealin With"

The film’s/ song’s narrative is, for all its absurdity, a perfect baroque roller coaster ride. It starts small in Chapter One, with two simple acts of adultery - one committed by Sylvester, one by Cathy. Chapter Two then ups the ante at its cliffhanger by making it three, also adding sexy pastor Rufus and his homosexuality in with the bargain. From here on, the scenes just get bigger (adding character after interlocking character), more dangerous (as multiple guns become involved) and more unpredictable.

What this plot relies upon, however, is a basically child-like conception of storytelling, character motivation and tone - one that values surprise over cause-and-effect and action over any level of plausibility.

'I pull my Beretta out...'
'I pull my Beretta out...'
It seems that drama in Kelly’s mind must be synonymous with potential danger. In order to achieve potential danger, therefore, he must create characters who are unimaginably highly strung, constantly on the edge of launching into a violent fit, and who carry weapons. The first example of this bizarre narrative tendency comes at the end of the very first Chapter, when Kelly is about to be discovered hiding in the closet: his immediate reaction is to “pull my Beretta out”. We didn’t know he even had a Beretta, let alone can we see why it is needed at this moment. This continues to happen throughout, usually at completely unnecessary moments: when Sylvester is confronted with Rufus’ gay love affair, when James - the policeman - thinks he hears Gwendolyn crying, when Sylvester hears a simple knock at his front door, and on and on…

'Blood everywhere...'
'Blood everywhere...'
Even more than this, the chain of events in Trapped in the Closet show that Kelly has never thought particularly hard about how to tell a story that flows, is understandable - or even physically possible. There are numerous instances that display a comically poor grasp of storytelling basics; see, for example the moment when Twan is shot. The idea is clearly that we are kept in suspense about exactly why there is “blood everywhere” at the beginning of Chapter Seven, since all three characters we know to be in the scene are alive and well. However, the two minutes or so for which this nonsensical secret is kept offscreen (and the fact that Twan is immediately subsequently A-okay) simply beggars belief, making anyone who knows the slightest thing about script writing want to shoot somebody.

Similarly, there are just so many things that are simply impossibilities (James flashing down Sylvester from behind when he must just have come from the direction Kelly is heading), unfeasible (Bridget’s decision to call a number she found in her husband’s pocket at a time of crisis) or just plain odd (Sylvester deciding to stay in Cathy and Rufus' house after continually requesting to leave).

'I'm not gonna die, at least not today...'
'I'm not gonna die, at least not today...'
Yet, being trapped in a world that operates in this strange way - a way that suggests not mere bad writing, but rather an entirely different conception of our world’s logic - is addictive, intriguing, and undeniably thrilling - be it in an ironic or sincere way. This is the thing with Trapped in the Closet: it is not just another example of something that is so-bad-it’s-funny: the specific ways in which it is ‘bad’ are so peculiar, so original and so unique that it practically requires judgement by a whole new set of criteria. I have come to the conclusion that this must be because it is the brainchild of a man whose mind works in a very different way to the kind of person who we usually find telling stories. This is a man who doesn’t consider a 42 minute hip-hopera voiced entirely by one person a funny concept, but does think that calling a decrepit, spatula-weilding old woman “a G, no doubt” is hilarious. Kelly’s mind is a twilight zone - one that it is infinitely entertaining to get a glimpse into.

"So Damn Twisted"

Indeed, one of the final, and finest, pleasures involved in watching Trapped in the Closet is trying to work out exactly what Kelly’s stance on his subject matter is. For example, clearly his driving thesis is that we should not hide in the “global closet” and that infidelity leads to deception, which leads - directly - to violence. There are, however, apparently degrees of badness within the adultery spectrum. It is a graver crime, for instance, to cheat on a partner in their own house than it is to do it elsewhere. Equally, it is infinitely more “shocking” if the affair is a homosexual one, and downright “twisted” if it is with someone of significantly smaller bodily proportions - say, a midget…

Big Man.
Big Man.
In many ways, Big Man - the midget in the cabinet in Chapter Ten - is the culmination of all that is great about Trapped in the Closet and can be used to try and finally get to grips with the film as a whole. Firstly, and most importantly, let us with a straight face acknowledge that his appearance is indeed as surprising as Kelly intends it to be: it is true, we did not expect there to be a midget in the cabinet. It is the latest in a long line of genuinely surprising twists that the film has managed to pull.

Secondly, his presence could be used as evidence that Trapped in the Closet as a whole does in fact realise that it is ridiculous, that it is overall intended to be a comedy. It would be easier to believe this, however, if Big Man didn’t simultaneously epitomize the casually offensive attitude Kelly takes throughout the film to anyone who is not him. More perverted than a gay love affair, more grotesque than a fat white Southern woman, funnier than the elderly - in a couple of short minutes of screen time, he is easily given the roughest ride of the movie. He is made visibly disgusting by the food slavered all around his mouth, he wears a tastelessly bright blue suit, he is beaten up (“Rufus continues to rough up the midget as if the midget was under attack”), he is a stripper with a large penis (imagine!), and he is a coward who faints multiple times and, inexplicably, “shits on himself”.

'The midget faints again...'
'The midget faints again...'
Kelly certainly intends Big Man to be funny, but for what reason exactly? My hunch is that it is not because a ‘little person’ suddenly emerging from a kitchen cabinet is so unexpected, so transparently a gimmick and so hilariously un-PC as to bring you out of the reality of the film entirely (though this is exactly the effect). Rather I think it is because Kelly genuinely thinks midgets are amusing, and damn if he isn’t going to poke as much fun at them as he can. He does not, as the narrator, jump out of the closet to say “now pause the movie!” just before Big Man’s arrival as some kind of postmodern acknowledgment of just how over-the-edge of believable fiction he is about to go. No: he does so because he in fact thinks we should prepare ourselves for the “so damn twisted” suggestion that a male midget/normal-size woman couple could exist in this world.

This, however, is why we must finally love Trapped in the Closet - for where else can you see this kind of skewed, out-of-touch, perspective onscreen, let alone in such a bizarre and original package? As I said before, it is the fact that this film allows us to take a peek at the fairground of confusion and colourful oddness beneath Kelly’s hood that finally makes it the amazing experience it ultimately is. If this makes it sound like a mere freak-show, and me a sick voyeur, so be it, that’s fine: the pure, undiluted, complex, hilarious, stupid, fascinating, endlessly repeatable, ever-growing joy I get from this film is worth any insult you could ever level at me. And that includes “R. Kelly fan”.

This article was published on May 22, 2006.

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