Documentary Review: “Framing Britney Spears” on FX/Hulu

When all this “Free Britney” hysteria started, and every time it’s kicked up since, I’ve shaken my head at the conundrum her unique situation seems to present.

Is Britney Spears still with us because of the draconian conservatorship her family imposed on her in the middle of her head-shaving, lashing-out hospitalizations of 2007-8? Maybe you’re like me and you’ve thought the same thing.

“Framing Britney Spears,” a “New York Times Presents” doc on FX/Hulu, should make us all question what we’ve heard, what we think we “know” in what could be an altogether different read on her plight — monitored and “controlled” by her father, Jamie Spears, her “$60 million (and counting) estate” under his “supervision.”

Yes, she seemed to pull herself together, but was she ever “falling apart?”

Yes, she’s turned around her image and her career with a dazzling and lucrative “comeback,” as a performer and as a person in the public eye. Would she have managed that without restraints placed on her actions, purchases and social life?

Samatha Stark’s “Framing,” which had no direct access to any member of the Spears family — Britney, her father Jamie, mother and semi-“silent” partner Lynne, or siblings — is in many ways yet more speculation of about the same order as the attention that the film suggests misused, abused and drove her to distraction a dozen years ago.

Record label folks, a personal assistant, lawyers, a backup dancer and assorted New York Times reporters on the Britney beat (none have interviewed her) can surmise, question and throw thoughts against the wall.

But like the bloggers, protesters and ardent fans, they and we DON’T KNOW.

Like reality TV, Stark’s film serves up villains, this time with a touch of New York condescension. Spears’ father comes off as a greedy, drawling ne’er do well, aimless and country and with his eyes on the prize early on. Her mother, glimpsed rarely even in archival interviews, seems passive and negligent.

The one sibling, “film producer” Bryan Spears, who spoke on a podcast about his sister’s situation, intimates that there’s some sort of ugly patriarchy ruling over her life even as he suggests they saved her life a dozen years ago and that she’s a lot more “free” than the “Free Britney” protesters seem to think.

The film doesn’t lay a glove on ex-husband Kevin Federline, a pretty serious omission. And it doesn’t bring up Britney’s whirlwind of other engagements, messy and impulsive relationships that led right up to the conservatorship.

Justin Timberlake, who rode a high-profile relationship with Spears to solo stardom post-“Mickey Mouse Club” and N’Sync, takes a big hit, too. But a single piggish radio interview isn’t necessarily a fair characterization, any more than a paparazzi-induced meltdown right before the conservatorship was of Britney.

The through-line of the film is the sexism and cruel nature of the attention Spears was subjected to, almost from the start — a “Mickey Mouse” club alumnus whose sexy breakout hit with its game-changing music video upsetting “parents” and conservatives and male interviewers and that Damned Diane Sawyer, too.

Another repeated message is that she’s not a dunce who needed puppetmasters to make her famous and maintain her fame. Leaving small town Louisiana for New York auditions, TV fame and then recording superstardom, she “grew up fast” as we say. She is lucid and sober, if somewhat taken aback or brought to tears in some of the interviews (Sawyer and Matt Lauer are rightly being re-crucified for their treatment of her, but many others were even worse.).

The “sexy vamp in underwear” image she was saddled with played into the later rush to judgement that she was a careless mother, driving with a baby in her lap photos making that case against her, the film suggests.

Being hounded by a seriously predatory celebrity press (only one paparazzo speaks here, and a magazine photo editor) and photo corps almost certainly contributed to incidents like that. “Instigated” and “provoked” the incidents might be more like it. “Framing” lets them off easy. If Paris Hilton (a celeb pal) is here, where is Perez Hilton, a major online tormenter of Spears at her lowest moments?

Her onetime-chaperone turned “business assistant” on tour, Felicia Culotta, opines that Spears is “capable of so much” more than she’s allowed to control now, and was seriously in charge of her image and career earlier on. But mainly Culotta is here “to remind people of why they fell in love with her in the first place.”

That’s the part of the film I could relate to. As Jive Records exec Kim Kaiman dissects her star’s “approachable” image and the way even a seemingly exploitive music video showed her in command of herself, her space, her flawless choreography and her choices, I remembered an early Sept. 1998 pitch from a Jive Records publicist.

I was angling for an N’Sync interview, and he said “Oh, we’ve got this girl opening for them (on their about-to-begin tour), let me Fed Ex this video to you. She is going to be SOMEthing.”

Dude was, if anything, understating the case. And as reluctant as I have always been to talk to REALLY young “talents” (she was 16), I caught up with her a couple of days after the video arrived.

As “Framing” rightly points out (culture critic Wesley Morris makes the case), that Oct. 1998 video release was a paradigm-shifting event in American pop culture.

All the girl powered pop of the past 20 years owes a least a little something to Britney and “Baby One More Time.”

Back then and in a couple of chats I had with her over the next few years, she came off as sweet, a little unsophisticated and girlish. A kid. Her one-admitted guilty pleasure was binge-watching “Friends” at home or on the road.

She understood and took ownership of songs written for her and had a pretty big hand in that whole schoolgirl uniform “Hit Me Baby” video vibe, and in every image-makeover that followed. “Sexy” wasn’t imposed on her.

“Normal” and “very young” was her offstage persona. But yes, you could tell she’d never been to college.

Later interviews, sampled in “Framing,” show a quickly-maturing and sophisticated, if vulnerable and living-under-glass, self-aware star who was starting to see the walls of her life closing in around her.

As Kaiman and others say in “Framing Britney,” younger girls went mad for her not necessarily for the sexy school girl image, but for the teen who was front and center and in charge, the relatable cool kid who could recruit her own dance corps to fall in line behind her, copying her moves and her fashion-forward treatment of the required-dress in that fictional school.

“Framing” may show a press conference where the stupidly rude land mine “Are you a virgin?” question was asked, which became an early misstep in terms of her image and reputation. But it doesn’t show how the media turned that into a “brand” that everyone rolled their eyes at, and it doesn’t ID the pig who asked it. She was a kid and it was an awful question.

Lacking interviews with the principals, we don’t get anything about possible drug use — allegations that she was drugged by one would-be Svengali, Sam Lutfi, yes. If she ever flunked a drug test, that’s germane.

She’s probably not sending “secret messages” in her Instagram posts. But she’s definitely showing a growing defiance about her situation and getting her message out, even if the California court system is unfairly keeping her from hiring her own lawyer in the fight over her life and her interests.

I don’t know if “Framing” solves anything, or if we actually get closer to her than any of the decades of superficial print and video profiles and interviews did. I appeared on a VH-1 “Behind the Music” on N’Sync and when asked about her personal life, her JT history, I had to shrug them off. Those parts of a celebrity life are unknowable, something I think that Stark’s film reinforces.

The best endorsement for “Framing Britney Spears” might be the fact that it opens the floor for questioning, forcing the public to reconsider her and the courts to look at her situation through the eyes of other known abuses of involuntary hospitalizations and conservatorships the way her fans and the general public have. It’s not just Lifetime Original Movie villains who manipulate that system.

If there’s a lot of money involved and a chance for ill-use and exploitation, that’s reason enough to suspect it. Maybe it’s time Britney got the benefit of the doubt, instead of giving that to literally every other lawyer, parent or gold-digging ex-husband in her orbit.

MPA Rating: TV-MA, substance abuse, some profanity

Cast: Britney Spears, Felicia Culotta, Nancy Carson, Paris Hilton, Kim Kaiman, Daniel RAmos, Wesley Morris, Vivian Lee Thoreen, Diane Sawyer, Matt Lauer

Credits: Directed by Samantha Stark. On FX and Hulu

Running time: 1:14

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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