KAty Perry, Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Billie Eilish, Charlie XCX, Olivia Rodrigo: The last decade has seen a boom in documentaries about female pop stars. These brilliant behind-the-scenes films promise to share an authentic, unfiltered look at “the real them,” often centered around touring or recording a new album. The rich lineage of music documentary is well documented, but it has recently become a lucrative tool that serves as both promotional material and complementary art at the same time.
Jennifer Lopez is the latest star to release a movie. After more than three decades in show business, Halftime seems like a more intriguing prospect than some of the recent concerts with J-Lo’s juniors. The film, directed by Amanda Micheli, focuses primarily on the build-up to Lopez’s 2020 Super Bowl performance and covers Lopez narrowly missing an Oscar nomination for his lauded performance in Lorene Scafaria’s 2019 film Hustlers. de Lopez to release a documentary are understandable: his three-decade career has been mired in professional and personal criticism. “All my life, I’ve fought to be seen, heard, taken seriously,” she says in Halftime.
Women in music often struggle to be taken seriously as artists. These documentaries give stars the opportunity to control their image and choose how much of themselves to share with the public. Of course, this trend is not restricted to women. Justin Bieber and One Direction’s concert documentaries in the 10’s promised viewers a look at their idols like they’d never seen them before. Fans filled theaters.
But for musicians, particularly those working in the often overlooked world of pop music, documentaries can be a powerful tool for regaining narrative control. When Katy Perry released Part of Me, the film that accompanied her massive 124-date world tour, she was struggling with health issues and in the midst of a painful divorce from Russell Brand. These personal tribulations are captured alongside footage of Perry getting ready for performances, emphasizing the grueling nature of his rigorous touring schedule. Upon the film’s release, many expressed admiration for Perry, and the film was praised for its directness.
Likewise, Lady Gaga’s Five Foot Two and Taylor Swift’s Miss Americana traced specific creative periods in the lives of their subjects. For Swift – long considered America’s darling – it was a chance to set the record straight after scandals involving Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, and repeated accusations that her quiet stance on political issues emboldened her right-wing fans. Miss Americana covers family illnesses, Swift’s highly publicized sexual assault trial, and her relationship with body dysmorphia. It’s a clever piece of propaganda, regardless of its sincerity – Swift notes her immense privilege as one of the most beloved musical artists of the millennium, but also seems keen to situate herself as the girl next door who just made it to the A-list. .
For younger stars such as Billie Eilish, Olivia Rodrigo and Charlie XCX, a behind-the-scenes documentary can be a savvy introductory tool, as well as a way to offer die-hard fans carefully curated insights into their lives. XCX’s Alone Together documented the process of creating a collaborative album during the Covid-19 pandemic, highlighting its DIY origins as well as the power of the online community. Billie Eilish’s The World’s a Little Blurry examines her rapid rise to fame and captures the weirdness of being one of the most famous people on the planet when you’re just an adult.
Inevitably, the content of these documentaries is carefully controlled. The nature of intimate access is that the subject is likely to have some say in what is and is not included and will strive to create a film that prioritizes his public image over honesty or artistry. These films can often feel more like an extended PR exercise than an all-area pass. Documentaries are often seen as an extension of journalism, which must maintain editorial independence even when granted intimate access. But when a filmmaker is specifically hired by a star to create a movie about them, does that relationship get skewed? In 2020, the Columbia Journalism Review published an article on the celebrity documentary boom more broadly and suggested that the documentary form was at odds with the content – these films do not exist to hold their subjects accountable or really interrogate the narrative they are. . passing. Perhaps we are moving towards a new hybrid form – “doc pop” is neither pure, independent documentary nor complete fiction.
Even though they are heavily managed by the stage, there is something valuable about these pop documents. It can be just as enlightening to look at what a subject chooses to leave out as what it chooses to include. Lopez doesn’t mention her relationship with Alex Rodriguez, whom she broke up with in April 2021. The break may serve to promote her narrative as a self-made pop icon, but it’s also a seasoned piece of pop culture mythology. And it’s tempting to watch global superstars at their most vulnerable — as long as the audience remembers that they’re always — in one sense or another — watching a performance.