The first few seconds of the Netflix documentary Blackpink: Light Up the Sky are worrying.
Huge heels click-clack across a silent room. The camera zooms in on legs in short skirts, brightly colored hair, and shaking hands holding microphones. No voice-over, no music—just silent reporters staring at the silhouettes of four faceless, voiceless girls. In the span of 10 seconds, all the most sexist, stereotypical portrayals of K-pop girl groups flash before your eyes.
Fortunately, just as the film begins to play like a documentary version of the most offensive reductions American media have made about K-pop, it flashes forward three years in an instant. Blackpink’s smash hit “Boombayah” kicks in, the grinning girls crash through a set of doors to a sea of noise and adoring fans, and director Caroline Suh turns those initial sexist, stereotypical seconds on their head. That’s when you realize: We are in trustworthy hands.
Netflix’s documentary about Blackpink is the latest in a string of attempts by Western media to capitalize on K-pop’s growing worldwide popularity. Like Netflix, many studios have tried to make their own introductory documentaries on the subject, with varying levels of success. The recent BBC documentary K-Pop Idols: Inside the Hit Factory gained praise for its respectful coverage of the K-pop industry, but reviewers like The Guardian’s Lucy Mangan still found the film, and the musical industry it portrayed, wanting. “Anyone over the age of 15 won’t be able to tell them apart, but that’s almost the point,” she wrote of the many idols featured.
Needless to say, fans of all ages can, and it’s not. But it’s hard to imagine anyone walking away from Blackpink: Light Up the Sky with a similarly dismissive takeaway. The four members of the girl group Blackpink—Jisoo, Jennie, Rosé, and Lisa—are given room to establish themselves as distinctive, individual personalities under the affectionate gaze of the seasoned documentarian Suh. But the film also serves as the kind of nuanced primer on the K-pop industry that past films have attempted and too often failed to provide. By showing the foundations of K-pop through the eyes of four women who have not only lived through the industry but shaped it, Suh exposes many of K-pop’s shortcomings while also showcasing its revolutionary advances in global popular music.
And Blackpink is nothing if not global. Longtime fans are likely tired of hearing about the diverse origins of Blackpink’s members—they hail from Korea, Thailand, New Zealand, and Australia—but their cultural adaptability throughout the documentary is compelling, as the girls cycle through different languages mid-scene, and often mid-sentence. Much of the film is in English, thanks to fluent speakers Jennie, Rosé, and Lisa, as well as English-speaking producers Teddy Park and Joe Rhee. But Jisoo is most comfortable in Korean, and the girls are careful to include her in conversations and interviews. Lisa also speaks in her native Thai in several interview segments, mostly while talking about her childhood in Bangkok. “Every group has their own cultural background that makes them who they are,” says Teddy. “But this combination … that’s what makes Blackpink unique.”
Teddy, the YG Entertainment producer who is credited with direction and oversight of the group, is featured at length in the first segment of the film, as he introduces the audience to each of the girls. It’s here where there may be a disconnect between how the “locals”—the internet’s term for casual bystanders—and fans experience the film. People who are new to Blackpink will appreciate Teddy’s short introductions—he clearly knows the girls well and cares about them, and he sums them up concisely. “Jisoo … a straight-up Korean girl that grew up in Korea. The unnie of the group—the oldest,” he says. “She does have that professional poker face. I’ve known Jisoo for a good six years. I’ve seen her cry … once.” He performs a similar introduction for the rest of the girls, including Lisa: “She’s always got that cool, calm, ‘It’s all good, we’re gonna be OK’ smile. But when it comes to certain moments—when the music starts, when it’s crunch time—she has this executioner killer instinct.” For new audiences, they’re helpful, charming introductions, based on personalities more than performances.
But for loyal fans, this isn’t new information—in fact, much of the documentary isn’t. Compilations of Jisoo’s tears—or lack thereof—are all over YouTube. Lisa’s killer instinct when it comes to performance isn’t news to fans who witnessed her stone-cold mentorship on a recent Chinese idol trainee show. Rosé’s acoustic covers, in which she showcases her piano and guitar skills, are a dime a dozen online, and anyone who has watched Jennie’s behind-the-scenes “Solo” footage knows how quickly she can switch between intense focus on her work and playful silliness.
It would be absurd to expect everyone watching this documentary to have seen all of those videos. But the reality is that K-pop fans are incredibly dedicated and voracious when it comes to consuming content, past and present. Such is the tension of any K-pop doc made while the industry is still integrating into pop culture at large: the need to explain everything to the newcomers, while also satisfying the people who’ve been on board for years. And to Suh’s credit, Light Up the Sky succeeds at least partially on both fronts. There’s plenty of never-before-seen content, including new interviews, childhood videos, and studio footage—scenes depicting Rosé’s self-penned, long-awaited studio sessions are particularly thrilling. But as the girls cringe into their seats rewatching their embarrassingly endearing YG audition tapes, you get the sense that the audience is supposed to be seeing them for the first time. And if you think fans haven’t dug up those tapes long ago, you just don’t know the fans.
Still, the most compelling part of the film is focused on the group’s pre-debut years. The K-pop trainee system has often been unfairly painted as a grim spectacle, an abusive clone factory where Korean youth take their dreams to die. The most pearl-clutching depictions suffer largely from ignorance and exaggeration, but some criticisms bear truth. K-pop trainees are put through a lot at a young age—for better and, sometimes, worse—in pursuit of their dreams. But the grotesque caricature of the system only grows when it’s not faced head-on, and Light Up the Sky is smart enough not to sugarcoat the foundations of its subjects.
Teddy and the girls of Blackpink spend significant time explaining the benefits of their time as trainees, and the girls openly remark on the struggle of the years they spent working their way up to debut. And years it was—Jennie trained for six years, Lisa and Jisoo trained for five, and Rosé trained for four. Accounts vary from Jisoo detailing her overwhelming training schedule, to Jennie mourning the normal high-school experience she wished she’d had, to Lisa looking back on grueling expectations as the company’s main dancer. Put simply, “It wasn’t a very happy vibe,” says Rosé.
Again, that’s no surprise to fans—anyone who has stanned a YG Entertainment group experiences a sort of Pavlovian shudder upon sight of those trademark, dismal practice rooms—but it’s never fun to watch Jisoo, Jennie, Rosé, and Lisa dance like their lives depend on it for a line of unsmiling men who appear to hold the girls’ careers in their hands.
But what Light Up the Sky ultimately proves is that in the end, it wasn’t up to those men at all. Blackpink isn’t an unprecedented success because of the tried-and-true YG Entertainment system—they’re an unprecedented success because they grew beyond it, and are now forcing the industry to grow with them. They’re a success because of Rosé’s deep affection for music, and because of Jisoo’s dry wit and unwavering care for her younger members. They’re a success because Lisa was “born to do this,” no matter where in the world she was born, and because Jennie preserved her individual artistry and optimistic spirit through six years of being told she wasn’t good enough.
Netflix was right to trust a woman with Blackpink’s story, and Suh cuts through K-pop’s strongest stereotypes to get to the truth behind not only the group, but the four unique women who make it. Not perfect, not polished; just trying their best in an industry that has exploded beyond what any of them could have expected.
The film ends with Blackpink’s Coachella performance in 2019. Moments before taking the stage, the four women worry that no one will be there to see them. How many Coachella-going, Western-music lovers would be interested in a K-pop group, the girls fear, when they could be listening to something—anything—else? As it turns out, thousands. And it’s that same magnetic appeal that will bring casual viewers to Netflix’s documentary and spit them out as fans. Welcome to the squad, everyone. We’re called Blinks.