Taylor Swift is free. Free to say whatever the hell she wants, even if it pisses off some of the record-buying public, her parents, and the president. (Especially the president.) Free to stand up for causes she believes in, like gay rights. Free to not let the ravenous, snickering, snarky beast we call “the internet” get her down. Free to own up to what she feels are her deficiencies, hypocrisies, and examples of unhealthy behavior (mentally and physically), and to try being a better version of herself. Free to no longer be the 13-year-old with the Disney-princess blond curls living for applause, or the 19-year-old who made sure she didn’t rock country music’s boat, or the twentysomething who felt she had to smile for the camera when she didn’t feel like it. Free to not be “Taylor Swift,” a persona of both the industry’s and her own making, but just be Taylor Swift, the singer-songwriter-insanely-famous-person who occasionally likes to lounge in her pajamas, play with her cats, and drink white wine with ice cubes.
This is the takeaway from Miss Americana, Lana Wilson’s chronicle of a particularly tumultuous period in T-Swift’s life, and there’s the sense that you’re watching someone finally get to the point where she can, to quote the woman herself, “take the muzzle off.” Consequences be damned. It’s designed to look less like a comeback victory lap than a coming out of sorts, a behind-the-scenes psychodrama that ends with an empowered phoenix rising from the ashes.
It’s also very much a typical modern-pop-star-confidential documentary, the kind that takes its cues from Madonna: Truth or Dare and “reveals” just enough vulnerability, messiness, and shouting matches to not fuck with the brand or feel too stiflingly stage-managed. (See also: Katy Perry: Part of Me; Gaga: Five Foot Two; Beyoncé: Life Is But a Dream.) There’s the paradox. The movie’s aiming for raw, intimate, authentic — all words Swift used after she walked out onstage at the film’s Sundance opening-night premiere to a standing ovation. The result is definitely honest but just north of overly cautious. You wouldn’t call it unfiltered by a long shot. It’s a peek behind the curtains that knows when to subtly, slyly slip the blinders on.
Access is, of course, what you come to these movies for — who wouldn’t want to be a fly on the wall of the 24/7 Taylor Express? And access is what Miss Americana gives you, even if you’re steered away from some of the narratives she’d like you to be excluded from. You get to see her on planes, in living rooms, giving manicures (“Give me a good review on Yelp,” she says while painting a friend’s nails). You hang out with her in the studio, recording Lover and sharing burritos with producer Joel Little, and watch her creative process happen in real time. Jack Antonoff and Brendan Urie drop by; the two share exasperation over rabid fans and stalkers. She traces her ascension to megastardom via archival clips and awards-show montages, then points out “the view from the mountaintop” after she attained her dreams felt a little existentially lacking. Kanye’s infamous VMA bumrush and the way it shook Swift gets dissected; so does #TaylorSwiftIsOver and her subsequent disappearance from the spotlight.
The big talking point will be Swift opening up about an eating disorder, a genuine confession to the camera that plays against a flipbook of her red-carpet appearances. You don’t need to be a genius or, God help you, a film critic to see the connection between the expectations thrust upon her as a female performer (and a female in general) and the pressure to live up to impossible expectations at the risk of health and sanity. This leads into Miss Americana‘s superior last third, in which Swift becomes radicalized and you feel like you really are watching somebody go through a chrysalis moment. It starts with her showing up in court and winning a lawsuit case against the Colorado DJ who blatantly groped her in 2013. It climaxes with her sending an Instagram supporting Democratic candidates in Nashville during the 2018 midterms — another you-are-there moment that justifies some of the more slogan-heavy recitations about not taking it any longer, etc. “How can I stand onstage and say, ‘Happy Pride Month, everybody!’ and not do anything as people literally come for [the LGBTQ community’s] necks?” she wonders, then puts her platform to use. An argument with her team peaks when someone mentions she stayed silent during the 2016 election. “I’m sad I didn’t come out against Trump, but I can’t do anything about that now,” she admits. The pain in her statement is palpable.
It ends with T-Swift back onstage, looking like “a melted-down disco ball” but still beyond fabulous, ready to show the world her straight-outta-the-cocoon butterfly wings. And when she joined Wilson in front of the Eccles Theater after the film ended, with everyone on their feet and cheering, some folks whooping and others crying, she did seem like a more mature, righteous version of pop royalty. Not even their gushing over each other’s work (Swift asked Wilson to follow her around after seeing her co-directed doc After Tiller) or a truly dead-on-arrival Q&A could dull the feeling that you were looking at someone who was done trying to conform to “good girl” expectations. Miss Americana may not be anywhere as open and gut-spilling as Swift’s duly celebrated lyrics (writing-wise, she’s a strong candidate for the second coming of Joni Mitchell). But as an extremely curated time capsule of a transition, it gets the job done. Don’t expect her Dont Look Back. Be thankful you got her Truth or Dare.