With a flashy opening slot in Sundance Film Festival and landing on Netflix days later, the Taylor Swift career retrospective documentary, Miss Americana arrives with a lot of hype. The movie promises to be a revealing, unseen look at her life and it kind of is and kind of isn’t. There is some heartfelt stuff in here and a few peeks behind the curtain of her creative process although some things are a wee bit superficial. The most difficult thing for Swift is speaking her mind without alienating her audience. She may be a multi–millionaire but even a gilded cage is still a cage.
Miss Americana follows Swift in the present day with multiple archival footage flashbacks and confessional scenes. Since her whole career has been captured on video it adds heft to see her jump from young country singer to pop superstar. While she has put up a smiling face there is a sadness underneath her public persona. There is a powerful juxtaposition of showing Swift in the middle of thousands of cheering audience members and her looking mopey when not on. Swift seems hard on herself, even admitting to some dark personal histories. In a heartbreaking scene, she admits she had been afraid to eat while on tour because she needed to be skinny, which is juxtaposed with some shocking older footage of her underweight. She obsesses over a picture pointing out her personally perceived physical flaws, momentarily backsliding into a bad habit.
There are multiple snippets her working on songs which is portrayed as she is the sole creative voice behind it all, meanwhile Swift works with a ton of co–writers and producers that gives her music its pop sheen. It feels a bit meticulously manufactured to highlight her image as an independent signwriting creative voice. However, there are moments of studio magic, like when she is working with the lead singer of Panic! at the Disco she seems genuinely ecstatic. It also has some fun intercutting with Swift talking about what she wants to do in the music video with footage of them shooting it, showing how her babbled video vision in the studio came true.
The movie sort of brushes over the fact that Swift went from country to pop without much reason why. The earlier flashbacks are layered with her country career and accolades but her left turn into stadium pop is mostly breezed over. The only impetus for her change is alluded to with Swift’s famous confrontation with Kayne West at the MTV Music Awards in 2009. It was a memorable pop culture moment, after Swift had won for Best Female Video Kayne came up and stole the mic, hollering that Beyonce’s video was the best of all time. In Miss Americana Swift reveals that while people were booing Kayne for interrupting her, she thought they were booing her. When her reaction is shown, it’s difficult not to feel empathy for a confused teenager girl. Of course, the movie slightly overdoes it with menacing music like it’s a super traumatic event, laying on the melodrama a bit thick.
There are still a few moments of humorous levity, like when Swift is at a meet and greet with fans in Tokyo every one of them freaks out and cries. In a bizarre bit, a guy proposes to his lady and she still can’t keep her eyes off Taylor Swift, who gamely tries to make the weeping now fiancée seem engaged. Another funny bizarre moment is when Swift is wearing an elaborately sparkly outfit to a music awards which she says makes her look like “a melted down disco ball” and a “pop tart wrapper”, admitting she can’t put her earrings on by herself since the dress is so tight in the shoulders she can’t reach that high.
Swift says early on that she simply wants to be liked which makes her transition to speaking out for her political beliefs a sideswipe for her crew. Having spent years silent on politics this could completely upset her brand, with one of her managers saying it could cut her audience in half. In an extremely clueless but oddly funny moment, her father delivers a positively archaic comparison “Does Bob Hope do it? Did Bing Crosby do it? Does Mick Jagger do it?” which Taylor’s mom snaps “What the hell?!” as Swift looks aghast. The moment when Swift makes an impassioned speech to her managers about what she believes is raw. There may have been a production issue with the camera auto–focusing back and forth as she speaks but it oddly gives her speech immediacy. The result of her finally putting out a political statement is seen as a huge deal, and it kind of is, and the end result is surprising.
Miss Americana may not be a warts and all documentary as it brushes over a key changes in her musical style, it does go deeper on one of the most famous people on the planet, showing a often vulnerable person underneath all the glitz. She unfairly beats herself up throughout but tries to emerge stronger. Miss Americana is pop star on a quest of finding their identity in a world where it’s much more profitable to shut up and sing. V
Director: Lana Wilson
Starring: Taylor Swift, Andrea Swift,
Scott Swift, Joel Little, Tree Pai