Blackpink: Light Up the Sky, Netflix’s documentary on the biggest girl group on the planet—let alone in K-pop—begins the second Blackpink was introduced to the world: during their debut in 2016, a career carefully launched with near militaristic precision. The opening shot depicts dozens of employees in Seoul, lined up in front of computers, preparing to launch YG Entertainment’s first new girl group in seven years. (Their predecessor was the ineffable 2NE1, one of the most successful and popular girl groups in South Korea, perhaps best known in the U.S. for the solo career of CL. Consequently, Blackpink, without having committed a harmony to record, had big shoes to fill.)
As the employees type, four silhouettes in impossibly tall stilettos march into position on stage. The lights turn on, and so do their anxious smiles. Music takes over, the first few wobbly synth notes of Blackpink’s early single, “DDU-DU DDU-DU.” The song continues into the next shot—captured three years later, as each member of Blackpink, Rosé, Jennie, Jisoo, Lisa—is photographed by innumerable paparazzi and fans, confident in head-to-toe designer. They’re on stage at Coachella. They’re the topic of morning news and late night television shows. They are, in a word, ever-present, and this documentary, directed by Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat’s Caroline Suh, will guide us through their journey there.
And it does—in wide, flat paint strokes instead of detailed ones—quickly highlighting the individual idiosyncrasies of each member of the group, humanizing their lives before K-pop and their existence now. Focusing on each woman’s autonomy proves to be successful—far too often, K-pop stars are portrayed as the product of a factory system. Here, they are young women with a tireless work ethic and distinct personalities, capable of criticizing their strenuous training process while celebrating the successes born out of it.
However, for diehard fans, or even those who’ve read a single comprehensive profile on the group, there is no new or revelatory information here. And that isn’t the point. Unlike, say, BTS’s Break the Silence: Docu-Series, which purposefully avoided foundational information on the group because it was specifically engineered for expert fans (and exclusively released on their company Big Hit Entertainment’s own social platform WeVerse), Netflix’s BLACKPINK: Light Up the Sky may very well attract casual listeners and curious parties, those who require the two-minute crash course in K-pop idol music history that appears in the first quarter of the film’s brief 79-minute run time. In that way, it’s more like One Direction’s This Is Us or The Jonas Brothers’ Chasing Happiness—for the fans, but completely accessible to everyone else. Light Up the Sky has to introduce its audience to K-pop’s infamous trainee process, to explain that becoming Blackpink required years of 14 hour days with only one day off every two weeks, countless dance and singing practices, and anxiety-ridden monthly recitals in front of company heads to determine who can continue on in the pop star process. My guess is that Blinks (Blackpink’s impassioned fanbase) will instead adore the never-before-seen family video clips spliced throughout, the mentions of Jisoo’s lack of tears (well-established Blink knowledge) or Lisa’s love of vintage clothing.
That said, Light Up the Sky has a few pleasures for both Blinks and curious viewers: the unparalleled access to Teddy Park, formerly of the Korean hip-hop group 1TYM and Blackpink’s self-described “fifth-member” and longtime producer, is an obvious success. Park is introduced by playing Blackpink’s collaboration with Lady Gaga, “Sour Candy,” for the girls for the first time—a real treat, because he very rarely, if ever, gives interviews to the press. He also delivers the perfect quote: “We’re just Korean people trying to make music. So If Korean people try to make music, it’s K-pop? I don’t even get it. Like, it’s Korean pop. The only thing is language. Why don’t they do that for every country? What is K-pop?”
Then are the moments where each girl articulates the extent of their relentless work ethic and schedule by expressing exhaustion and pride in equal parts. There’s Jennie training with her pilates instructor: “She’s my friend. One of the few that I have,” the singer reveals while stretching. “I am super shy. I was one of those people where I can’t even order something on the phone. I hated that. It took me a while to get this far.” There’s Rosé revealing that she has a hard time sleeping, and because she is so busy, uses those precious resting hours to write her own songs. There’s also the moment when she articulates her familiar star-studded loneliness with a heartbreaking comment: “I didn’t feel like I had a personal life. It felt like there was this big hole in my life. What I’m basically living for is tomorrow’s show. I love being on stage because that’s when I feel most alive and yet when we come back to the hotel, I felt so empty. And that’s when I realized that I’m homesick.”
There’s Jisoo comparing Teddy Park to “the final boss” of a video game, and wistfully considering how lucky those few who know what they want to do with their lives are. There’s the enthusiastic and emphatic Lisa, who doesn’t see the outstanding influence of her group until their 2019 Coachella performance. “All races and all kinds of people came together there,” she says in her native Thai, cheerful as ever. “So it helped emphasize, this represents BLACKPINK.”
Notably absent in the film is YG’s former CEO and founder Yang Hyun-suk, the man responsible for training the members of Blackpink and bringing them together as a quartet. Yang, of course, resigned from his position at the company in summer 2019 following the highly publicized Burning Sun scandal, where he was accused of using his police connections to cover up his performers’ drug controversies.
In the film, Jennie mentions him only once, and only as “the CEO” who “put us in different groups every other month just to see. And there was a point where he pointed the four of us out.” In the credits, Bo-Kyung Hwang, YG’s current CEO, is listed as an executive producer. Of course, this is a film about Blackpink and not the inner workings of their company, but with that unprecedented access, I can’t help but feel curious about the shift in power and its ramifications.
A popular criticism of BLACKPINK: Light Up the Sky is that it fails to interrogate how popular music—regardless of nation of origin—uses up its young talent, working them to a point of impossible rigor for a palpable career that lacks any real endurance. “It’s a shame that... complicating moments are few, and BLACKPINK: Light Up the Sky declines to dig deeper into the ways YG engineers and commercializes talent at such a young age. Here is an economy in which companies make millions by working kids to the bone,” Natalia Winkelman wrote in The New York Times. “Skimming the topic is a missed opportunity, but the film’s winsome stars are its saving grace.” But to do so would rip at the seams of an industry frequently likened to a modern-day Motown—that depth is left for the critics to consider, and those Blinks who protest when they feel management has failed their group. Those limitations have an obvious explanation, anyway: the documentary was produced by YG, after all.
Far too often, Western media flattens its portrayals of K-pop into dangerous, sexist, and orientalist language. In that framework, these performers are impossibly well-oiled machines, trained beyond comprehension, designed to inspire consumerism and idolatry. Blackpink: Light Up the Sky, on the other hand, attempts to detangle each member from their group, giving them space to say their peace within the exhaustive industry they’ve found themselves in. While there’s not a lot of new information here, it is a nuanced and exciting introduction to an exciting new girl group, and that is all it needs to be.