Documentary filmmaking can be really tricky. How do the filmmakers know they’re capturing reality? How do they know they’re not filming a performance by the subject of the film? It’s like the old riddle: If a tree falls in the woods, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? In this case, if the subject of the documentary knows a camera is recording them, does the film lose its credibility?
For 21st century documentarians, the problem is even more pronounced. We live in a world of selfies and TikTok videos. Everyone seems to be looking for their fifteen seconds of fame. How do you record anything “real” in a world where everything is staged for 1,000 of your closest friends?
In the case of Miss Americana, a new Netflix documentary that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 23rd, the situation is more complicated because the film is about one of the biggest celebrities on the planet: Taylor Swift.
With billions of plays on the many singles made throughout her career, she’s not just a person, she’s also a product.
Celebrities of her magnitude can’t say anything they want whenever they want. She has to consider her words carefully, and that might not make the most interesting of documentaries.
For its first thirty minutes, Miss Americana feels mostly like fan service for the legions of Taylor Swift devotees across the globe. We see Taylor performing as a child. We see her win four Grammys at 21. Performance footage is cut with clips of Taylor interacting with fans and signing autographs for screaming and crying young girls. It’s basically lowest common denominator, predictable fan club content.
But as the film enters its second act, it turns to darker subject matter and deepens its look at the celebrity at its center. The destructiveness of social media and Taylor’s online feuds with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian take center stage. Almost overnight Taylor goes from sweet girl next door to a fake conniving celebrity. Obviously, the young singer songwriter is still the same person she always was, but the swing in public opinion is devastating.
For a celebrity, image is everything.
When your entire life is based on entertaining people and literally making them happy, what does it do to you when your audience turns away? Miss Americana only scratches the surface of this issue, but it’s a fascinating scratch.
The film also shows Taylor Swift as she evolves from a young girl who tries to please everyone into a politically aware adult who wants to speak out on social issues. When she tells her management team that she wants to issue a public statement about a pair of Tennessee candidates vying for a Senate seat, they nearly have a collective heart attack trying to convince her not to take a stance.
One adviser says, “What if I came to you and told you that I have a great idea about how we can make half your audience disappear overnight?”
The public can be fickle. Fame can disappear as quickly as it arrives.
Miss Americana transcends its subject matter and becomes a study of celebrity in modern America. Even if you’re not a Taylor Swift fan, you’ll be captivated by this glimpse into a universe populated by the ultra-famous.
At 85-minutes, Miss Americana doesn’t overstay its welcome. If your child is a big Taylor Swift fan, you won’t mind taking this journey with them. However, parents should be aware that the film features R-rated language. There’s by no means constant profanity, but the songwriter does drop the occasional F-bomb along the way.
Miss Americana is currently streaming on Netflix. I give the documentary 3.5 out of five popcorn buckets.