It’s quite late in the game for Taylor Swift to be expecting anybody to change his or her opinion about Swift as a performer, celebrity, icon and influencer.
But this new documentary takes its shot, a somewhat revealing distillation of her life and career, literally “growing up” under the intense spotlight of her fame and her image as “Miss Americana.”
The film captures the willowy, unutterably gorgeous blonde during and after the “Reputation” tour, about to turn 29 and experiencing a political awakening — the risks she took speaking out against Trumpism and its Senate proxies during the 2018 midterms.
Lana Wilson’s film — with Swift narrating in a sort of Q & A format — succinctly and thoroughly sums up the full spectrum of attitudes, the controversies, the blizzard of attacks that Kanye West, Fox News (when she endorsed Democrats in 2018) and others have waged against her, the nasty coverage of her “calculating” high-profile, gossip-friendly/very public “relationships” and the lawsuit she fought and won against a scumbag disc jockey who groped her.
Even winning that suit took a toll.
“You don’t feel a sense of victory when you win, because the process to so dehumanizing.”
If nothing else, the film forces you to add “respect” to your opinion, thanks to the revelations about her experience of the world, which has been both her oyster and her tormenter since she was 16. “Calculating” she may be, but she’s good at math.
Not being in her target demo, that “fanbase that’s grown up with me,” I go back and forth over Swift’s music, her talent and the carefully-cultivated “good girl” image, the one she admits she’s been trapped in because celebrities are preserved in amber the way they came off the moment they became famous.
I’ll think, “She’s not much of a lyricist” and then a song will pop up and make a decent case that lightning strikes (She taps out lyrics on her cell phone in the recording sessions in “Miss Americana.”) on occasion. I wonder if she’s all that as a singer, and then stumble — impressed — into a Youtube video of just her and her guitar, singing and playing in quieter interludes during her epic stadium “extravaganzas.”
But “Cats” is the most recent evidence that she has a lot of trouble with pitch, that she tends towards flat, and there are moments in “Miss Americana” where we can hear this as well. Her singing, like her playing and her songwriting, is a craft where we can see the effort and grimace when effort and production and autotuned are not enough. Which is fine, not everybody is a “natural.”
As a public person, she’s played the “victim” card a bit too often. But she didn’t invite to be groped, or to be a party to the first public proof that Kanye West is unstable. And even if some creep has control of your music catalog, some acknowledgement that her level of fame can make you look like the bully in such a tussle would be nice.
Persistent, undying rumors about her sexuality make you figure that whatever Brit actor she’s connected with today, if coming out is in her future, she’s got an “Apology Tour” to plan. Taking back all those songs she wrote about guys who’ve “wronged” her would be the “nice girl” thing to do.
That goody goody image is why I was a little surprised at hearing all that profanity pop out of her and her mother’s mouths in “Miss Americana.” That ties into the theme of the film, that Taylor Swift was raised to seek “the approval of strangers,” to “be thought of as ‘good,” to “do the right thing and be a ‘good girl.” To not make “trouble.”
When she’s surfing public popularity at the level she’s enjoyed it, any setback can seem personally shattering — Kanye at the Video Music Awards, in court, a Fox or Trump target, more Kayne kerfuffles.
“Do you know,” she asks, how many haters it takes for “#TaylorSwiftisOverParty” to be the top trending Twitter hashtag worldwide?
Stuck in a celebrity bubble, having only her mother to confide in about most things (She’s had friends since childhood, but being famous since childhood circumscribes who those friends are.), she’s been slow to grow up and develop perspective. Mom helped with that, too.
“Do you really care if the Internet doesn’t like you today, if your Mom’s sick from chemo?”
The film opens with a potential meme — Taylor playing the piano with a“kitten on the keys.” Adorbs.
The “big moment” is that decision to tweet her support for candidates who stick up for women’s rights, stand for protections from violence against women and put a premium on kindness. Yes, that rules out Republicans, even if her Dad has been one forever. The moment may be a hotly-debated and considered (before release) tweet. But the impact was huge, if not big enough to flip a Tennessee Senate seat.
The meanest thing a critic could say about “Miss Americana” is that whatever we get to “know” about Swift and her evolution in the documentary, she’s never out of makeup and never remotely as vulnerable as Katy Perry came off in the equally self-promoting but more raw and revealing “Part of Me” documentary of 2012.
But all that said, all the faintly cringe-worthy fan “meet and greets” (One proposes to his girlfriend in front of “Tay Tay,” to make it more memorable.), all the elaborate, anthem-filled stage shows that don’t really give a definitive answer to her singing talent, Swift comes off as likeable as anybody who frets over controlling her resting “mean-face” (while performing on stage or in music videos) can be.
Every album has to be an event that tops the previous “event.” No Grammy nominations for this or that LP is “fine. I just need to make a better record.”
Knowing she’ll be sent to “The Elephant Graveyard” (for forgotten pop starlets) at 35 is a burden she’s trying to carry, and delay.
A mob greets her as she leaves for the recording studio — “So this is my front yard. And I am HIGHLY aware that this isn’t normal.”
Pressure, pressure and m more pressure.
It’s hard getting to be “Miss Americana.” It’s almost impossible to stay “Miss Americana.” This semi-intimate film gives mere mortals an appreciation of the personal cost of getting there, staying there and staying reasonably sane and happy as you do.
MPAA Rating: TV-MA, skimpy costumes, lots of profanity
Cast: Taylor Swift, Andrea Swift, Scott Swift, Tree Paine, Brendon Urie and of course, Kanye West.
Credits: Directed by Lana Wilson. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:25