Billie Eilish: The World's a Little Blurry comes three weeks following the release of The New York Times documentary, Framing Britney Spears. Like Eilish, Spears too was all but 17 when she dropped her debut album (...Baby One More Time). Her personal and legal turmoil is a cautionary tale on how the music business exploited a young star, and the hand media played in shaping her career and downfall. Sadly, Spears didn't have social media back then to share her story. She couldn't reclaim the narrative the tabloids and her fans somehow felt entitled to. Taking cue from Beyoncé, Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift in recent years, Eilish centralises her own narrative in the new Apple TV+ docu - Billie Eilish: The World's a Little Blurry.
Bankrolled by streaming services, such films have allowed modern pop stars to be agents of their own myth making.
Eilish was 14 when she burst onto the scene with the SoundCloud sensation, “Ocean Eyes.” By 17, the LA-born artist had solidified her standing alongside sad-pop songstresses like Lana Del Rey and Lorde with her debut record When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? In the contemporary shift towards singles and Spotify playlists, it was a rare victory for the album. For a future-fearful and genre-less generation, it was anti-pop elixir.
Filmmaker RJ Cutler gets a backstage pass to Eilish's meteoric rise, from the bedroom production of her debut album to global concert tours, culminating in the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards. The Californian singer-songwriter made history in 2020 as she became the youngest artist to sweep the Grammys in four major categories: Best New Artist, Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Album of the Year. These milestones are framed into something resembling a teen coming-of-age story. Cutler offers an intimate glimpse into Eilish's non-professional life beyond the well-documented fangirling over Justin Bieber and The Office.
We’re peeking into the life of a Gen Z pop star after all. Add to that there’s an inherent voyeurism to the vérité approach. Being privy to her inner sanctums comes with a certain responsibility.
The film's empathetic gaze however ensures a sensitive portrayal. When she isn't performing, we get a sense of Eilish as just another teenager. She's trying to get a driver's license. She's going on ice-skating dates with boyfriend Brandon Adams aka Q, and dealing with inevitable heartbreak.
Condensing two-and-a-half years of Eilish's life and music into a vérité record of two-and-a-half hours is no easy task. Cutler never forgets that the key to understanding her popularity lies in her music. Eilish possesses that rare gift of distilling her sadness into honest and relatable songs. If her wise-beyond-years words speak to the head and heart, the infectious hooks keep your foot tapping. Some songs have a nursery rhyme quality to them, others feel like words joined together from diary entries. She doesn't always sing so much as whisper her words as if to beckon the listener nearer, to find comfort in shared emotional turmoil. She describes her fans as repositories of “feelings and heartbreaks,” like they're a part of her. And you see it as Cutler closes in on the faces of concert attendees tearing up to “When the party's over” and “I love you.”
Helping Eilish handle the dark side of fame is an able supporting cast in her family. They are her biggest cheerleaders. Eilish may be the one appearing on all the late-night talk shows and magazine covers. But “Billie Eilish” is a solo act, a sibling duo, and a family. “I would do talent shows when I was little, and my dad would play ukulele. My mom would play guitar. My brother would sing harmony. It was always like that. Our family was just one big fucking song,” she says in the film.
The documentary is therefore as much a testament to her support system, as it is to her talent. Eilish’s brother Finneas O’Connell co-wrote and produced the album. They share a secret handshake, and the same sense of humour.
We get a glimpse of it when an inside joke about Invisalign becomes the album opener. Her mom Maggie Baird accompanies her on tour, and perks her up through break-ups and break-downs. Dad Patrick O’Connell makes dad jokes about wiping butts with long nails, and gives her dad advice before her first drive.
As fun as it may be to eavesdrop on Eilish's life, part of the alchemy of what makes the film work is when Cutler trains his camera on the pop wunderkind trying to manage her private life while in the public eye. When Cutler catches her in vulnerable moments, he lets the scene play out without intruding. This is where Eilish is at her most candid and contemplative. He uses silence and sound as artfully as Finneas does in his production of Eilish's album. He gives her family the same treatment. Aware of the number of artists whose careers have been ruined by struggles with addiction and mental illness, her mom chokes up in a scene, wondering how anyone can handle fame without family.
Eilish is also forthcoming about her struggles with Tourette’s, and reflects on her depression in her early teens. Her music is already an outlet to work through issues one wouldn’t dare suffer on their own.
Her candour becomes even more refreshing. When a journalist quizzes her why she doesn't make more “happy music,” quick comes the reply: “I'm never feeling happy. Why would i write about things I don't know about?” Three weeks following the release of The World’s a Little Blurry, Demi Lovato gets to “set the record straight” on her struggles with substance abuse in the docuseries, Dancing with the Devil. It’s easy to see why these docs are vital to destigmatising mental illness, and encouraging the otherwise reluctant and reticent to reach out.
While films like The World's a Little Blurry help demystify the pop star, they can also act as a self-serving commercial to sell more albums and concert tickets. While this is no puff piece, it's not an entirely unadorned portrait. Because even if you are privy to some confessions, the artist still controls what is filmed and the filmmaker still controls what is shown to us. This is no concert film either. In fact, the performances are, if anything, incidental pleasures. It's what happens behind-the-scenes that makes for fascinating viewing. Backstage at Coachella, Eilish meets Katy Perry and another eager fan in her husband Orlando Bloom. Only, she doesn't recognise him till informed later, confessing in embarrassment that she thought he was “just some dude Katy Perry met.” Her well-documented first encounter with Justin Bieber, also at Coachella, gets a longer, sweeter cut.
On one occasion, Eilish's pique reaches its peak when her mom and manager ambush her into posing for an endless barrage of photos with record executives and gatekeepers. Conscious of just how hard it is to be a young woman under constant public scrutiny, her mom apologises the next morning, promising never to put her in that position again. In another poignant scene, back from a weary world tour, Eilish asks her mom, “Can I just not do anything and walk around this park alone?” With fans and paparazzi always on the hunt, Eilish very well knows the answer. It's a harsh truth, but truth nonetheless. Like Spears and every pop star before her, Eilish being faced with suffocating scrutiny in a toxic celebrity culture forces us to confront our own relationship with celebrities.
Rating: 3.5 Quints out of 5
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