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Paper Dolls, Paramount+ review: a musical roller-coaster ride

Five young Australian women try to make it in the music business at the turn of the century – prepare to be entertained.

Paper Dolls isn’t exactly a behind-the-scenes look at Australia’s turn-of-the-century manufactured pop group Bardot, but the similarities aren’t really a coincidence either – despite the on-screen statement before things get started that ‘the story, names, characters and incidents portrayed in this production are fictitious’.

Based on what’s described as ‘an original concept’ by Belinda Chapple, the set-up of Paper Dolls clearly borrows heavily from the Bardot story. Which is no surprise, as Chapple was a member of the group, created to be the focus of 2000 reality television series Pop Stars. Together with series writer and creator Ainslie Clouston, she’s put together the story of five young women brought together to seek stardom on reality show Pop Rush. Which is clearly nothing like Pop Stars.

Once past the reminder that everything here is fiction, the series begins with an announcer shouting ‘Are you guys ready for the new millennium?’ as Harlow make their (delayed) way onto a stage surrounded by screaming fans. Going by the way she’s crying, it looks like Izzy (Emalia) isn’t.

After she slumps to the ground, manager Margot (Emma Booth) shoves a mic in her hand. ‘It’s just one last time,’ she says. Looks like Harlow’s flashy costumes and cyberpunk glasses aren’t going to be enough to keep them going into the 21st century.

Six months earlier, Izzy was a former teen star turned pizza-shop employee, delivering pizzas to former fans and coming back to a kitchen where the orders are piling up because the middle-aged blokes working there are glued to Pop Crush, a new reality TV series where thousands of young women are ‘competing to become a member of the next girl group phenomena’.

Famous Five

With the show having already chosen the five members who’ll be living together, recording together and performing together (they’ve even got a gig lined up at Roseland shopping centere!), it looks like Izzy’s future lies behind the counter making pizzas. Well, that and sleeping with the pizza customer who recognised her.

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Then Izzy barges her way into Margot’s office and demands a second chance. Good timing: one of the Harlow girls has just been shown the door for stealing, and now Izzy is part of the group alongside Annabel (Naomi Sequeira), Jade (Courtney Clarke), Charlie (Miah Madden) and Lillian (Courtney Monsma). It’s her second chance at stardom and nothing’s going to stop her now … unless you remember the opening scene.

Trying to make it as a musician has a ready-made dramatic structure – it’s a long way to the top, after all – and Paper Dolls takes full advantage of it. Combined with plenty of tension within the band and their management, plus the always attractive mix of gloss and grit that comes with lifting the lid on reality television, and you have a series that’s always entertaining even when some of the elements don’t quite click.

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Each of the early episodes focuses on a different member of the group, all of whom turn out to have more than their fair share of secrets and personal issues. Izzy has a past with record label chief Roger (Ditch Davey); Charlie has a history of self-harm; Jade’s hiding a relationship that could shatter her public image. And all the while the label is relentlessly pushing them forward, with an approach to publicity that pretty much begins and ends with the word ‘sexy’.

Authentic

There’s a lot going on here, and while there are times when a plot thread or two could have been fleshed out more, the whirlwind pace of things adds to the authenticity. These five young women really are on a roller-coaster ride, and the faster Paper Dolls moves the better it works. Though there’s always time for a glam performance from Harlow, who – thanks to solid performances from the talented cast – come across as plausible rivals for Bardot’s crown.

Pop music goes in cycles, nostalgia is always in fashion, and pointing out the sexism of the music industry while young women in sexy costumes gyrate on stage is just good business. Paper Dolls isn’t so much lifting the lid on the inner workings of celebrity as giving audiences a more polished and twist-heavy reboot of what Pop Stars was serving up 20 years ago. Turns out the music business is sleazy, exploitative and heartless – I guess that’s what makes it so entertaining.

The first three episodes of Paper Dolls are available on Paramount+ now, with new episodes available each Sunday.

Anthony Morris is a freelance film and television writer. He’s been a regular contributor to The Big Issue, Empire Magazine, Junkee, Broadsheet, The Wheeler Centre and Forte Magazine, where he’s currently the film editor. Other publications he’s contributed to include Vice, The Vine, Kill Your Darlings (where he was their online film columnist), The Lifted Brow, Urban Walkabout and Spook Magazine. He’s the co-author of hit romantic comedy novel The Hot Guy, and he’s also written some short stories he’d rather you didn’t mention. You can follow him on Twitter @morrbeat and read some of his reviews on the blog It’s Better in the Dark.