Music Updates

‘Not the Typical High School Story’: Inside the Making of Olivia Rodrigo’s Concert Film ‘Sour Prom’

Directed by Kimberly Stuckwisch and Toby L, Sour Prom is a 27-minute live concert film featuring performances of six full songs and a mashup from Rodrigo’s platinum-certified debut album Sour — which debuted atop the Billboard 200 albums chart with the year’s best first-week numbers, and has spent three non-consecutive weeks at No. 1 on the listing. Since its YouTube premiere on June 29, the film has surpassed 10 million views. 

Rodrigo had graduated from high school two weeks before the film’s premiere, mentioning in interviews over the past few months that her rise as one of pop’s biggest stars often coincided with completing her statistics homework. While exciting in its own right, being homeschooled on set of the Disney+ series High School Musical: The Musical: The Series as her music career was blowing up earlier this year excluded her from the traditional high school senior experience, much like the pandemic had limited celebrations for recently graduated classes. “Since Olivia never got to go to prom, she knew she wanted to throw an event for everyone to celebrate together,” Stuckwisch tells Billboard. “Olivia still wanted to partake, albeit in her own way,” adds Toby L. “We and Olivia really wanted to ensure it wasn’t quite like the typical prom or high school story.”

Sour Prom visually and sonically expands on the world presented on Sour –– validating a range of emotions spanning from heartbreak to jealousy to self-assurance –– through the context of an all-inclusive high school prom experience viewers could find themselves in. “I never got to go to prom in high school, I was going through a really rough time in my senior year,” explains Gutierrez, who graduated high school in 2018. “I was so heartbroken over it. Then, all of a sudden, it’s 2021 and I’m being asked by my favorite singer to go to a prom party with her.” 

Gutierrez was one of eight young women provided with designer gowns and chauffeurs to attend the Sour Prom premiere in Los Angeles. Rodrigo’s crew of prom dates were tasked with keeping the event under wraps until it was officially announced to the public on June 23. At the time of the announcement, Sour Prom was still in post-production with production company Up The Game, as the singer’s creative team worked around the clock to meet a 7-day deadline for a project they would normally have 8 to 10 weeks to complete. Sour Prom had been initially planned to be filmed in a real high school gym, but the location fell through two days before shooting began due to the school’s prior commitment to host a summer camp, leading to the compressed time schedule. 

“We hit a lot of road bumps. It was no one’s fault, that’s just the way the cards fell and everyone was super level-headed about it,” says cinematographer Justin Hamilton. “I don’t think that it’s possible to really describe how tough it was on the producers’ end with losing [the original high school] location, and then coming up with so many alternate plans. We were running into permitting issues just because of the time crunch that we were on.”

Nick Walker*

The prom set ultimately seen in the film was actually built on a 3-dimensional soundstage and performed with 75 people total. “A big part of the artistic creative challenge was, ‘How do you make that seem full and real and not sad?’” says Richoux. “It’s supposed to be ‘Sour Prom,’ but it wasn’t supposed to be depressing because nobody was there.”

While the visual event came together behind the scenes, its press cycle was dominated by plagiarism accusations from Hole frontwoman Courtney Love, who said the film’s promotional photo of Rodrigo as an emotional prom queen was starkly similar to the cover art of the band’s 1994 album Live Through This. “Stealing an original idea and not asking permission is rude,” Love wrote on Facebook. “There’s no way to be elegant about it.” Rodrigo acknowledged the comments on Instagram — where Love also posted about the similarities — commenting: “love u and live through this sooooo much.” 

While she may have drawn influence from Hole, prior to announcing Sour Prom, Rodrigo also uploaded stills from Twilight and the 1976 cult classic Carrie to her Instagram story to highlight more direct inspirations. In a 2019 interview with Another Magazine, Ellen von Unwerth, who photographed the Live Through This cover, shared that Love had initially approached her with the idea of re-enacting the latter film’s prom scene, too. “That became part of the PR conversation of it, for sure,” Sour Prom production designer John Richoux says of the overlap in creative vision. “But I mean, it really came from that one Carrie reference and [Olivia] wanted it. She wanted that feel.” 

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