Taylor Swift and the pop music doco
M, 85 minutes
Streaming on Netflix
Review by © Jane Freebury
More often than not, a documentary about a pop star is a contradiction in terms. The film that is touted as a big reveal tends to be a tightly-managed affair, another aspect of the marketing, that discloses little about the subject in question. Except that they enjoy tucking into burritos or are fond of fluffy kittens.
Some of the stars have managed to sidestep the big reveal altogether. It is unlikely that the smokescreen around Bob Dylan, will ever clear. Not unless you take as a touchstone the early doco, Dont Look Back, that D. A. Pennebaker made while Dylan was touring in his early twenties, and still working out what he wanted to do.
The decades of stone-walling have eventually brought about the intriguing tribute, I’m Not There, a biopic involving six different actors, including Cate Blanchett, imagining facets of the man with the little we have been provided with.
Madonna’s raunchy exhibitionism has exactly the same effect. She’s not there. Madonna: Truth or Dare (aka In Bed with Madonna) from 1991 masqueraded under the title documentary, when it was a promotional video over which she had executive control. Always a mistress of reinvention, with formidable ambition based on modest natural talents, it is still impossible not to admire the flair and the determined businesswoman in her, always a step ahead of the rest.
Madonna’s story is in striking contrast to that of Amy Winehouse, the wonderful singer-songwriter who died of alcohol poisoning in 2011. The feature doco about her, Amy, now screening on Netflix, won just about every significant international award but I was dismayed by its exploitation of a fragile and troubled star. Amy should be remembered for her music, not for the train wreck of her life that is the focus of the film.
At least the Janis Joplin documentary, Janis: Little Girl Blue, allowed for many long sequences of her stage performances alongside the self-harm and personal desolation that were on the record.
Miss Americana, a new entry in the genre, takes a look at the pop megastar Taylor Swift. If the personal stories she tells with her music and flashy performances don’t grab you, the story of her journey as a celebrity most likely will.
Swift is the first artist since the Beatles to have four consecutive albums hold the #1 spot on Billboard’s Top 200 for six or more weeks. So, who is she?
The singer-songwriter has become an immense star, but her journey is an object lesson in the perils of living for the approval of strangers. She also reveals the loneliness at the top, recalling how on receiving an album of the year award she’d had no one special to call to share her news.
It’s these moments captured by director Lana Wilson that make this doco interesting. Some of the raw emotion exhibited is surprising and touching, and it seems genuine.
During the golden years of her adolescence, Swift was as a coltish figure with masses of blonde curls, who won a major award for her debut country album. But the dream run stopped when she won the best female video award. After arriving at the awards in what could only be described as a fairytale glass carriage, shaped like Cinderella’s pumpkin, from which she emerged elegant in a silvery number, her hair up.
As she stood onstage about to make her acceptance speech, Kanye West crashed her party, grabbing the mike and announcing that Beyonce’s video was the best.
President Obama said West was a jackass, but the impact this had on the 19 year old was obviously profound. She imagined the crowd was booing her, revealing here and elsewhere a tendency to be hard on herself, when it was actually booing at the interloper.
The incident put an end to her dream run. She wouldn’t be playing good girl anymore since she discovered there was no point in worrying if people didn’t ‘like’ her when there were other things in her life that really mattered, like her mother was battling cancer. She has ditched her long-held apolitical persona, and got involved in gender politics too.
Miss Americana reveals disturbing aspects of celebrity culture, how it can turn on its own. It is good to see that this pop princess has seen through the fairytale and recognised celebrity for what it is.
First published in the Canberra Times on 17 May 2020. Also broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7.
Jane’s reviews have also been published by the Canberra Critics Circle and the Film Critics Circle of Australia