It’s amazing to consider that Britney Spears is not yet 40. She seems to have been part of the pop culture firmament for generations. In the New York Times produced documentary Framing Britney Spears we see her on Star Search in 1992, back when Ed McMahon was fresh off The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Spears is 10. McMahon asks if he could be her boyfriend. Spears looks extremely discomfited, and manages to squeak: “Well, it depends.”
At just 74 minutes, Framing Britney Spears feels like watching a train wreck, not in slow motion, but sped up to a dizzying pace. Britney was auditioning for TV’s The Mickey Mouse Club at the age of eight, and recorded her first hit single, Baby One More Time, when she was 17. (Newspaper style is to use her last name, but Spears is so well known as Britney that to do so would feel like calling Madonna “Ms. Ciccone.”)
There are so many ways to frame Britney’s life. You could for instance make a film about her romantic relationships, including the disastrous fallout from her split with fellow ex-Mousketeer Justin Timberlake that had Diane Sawyer asking her in an interview: “What did you do?”
You could create at the very least a clip reel of other inappropriate interactions. There’s a Dutch reporter, Ivo Niehe, who seems to only want to discuss her breasts during a sit-down interview in the ’90s. Or take Daniel Ramos, a paparazzo whose vehicle she once attacked with an umbrella as he was trying to photograph her. Ramos says in the documentary that Britney never explicitly told him to leave her alone. At which point a voice off-camera asks: “What about when she said ‘leave me alone’?”
But director Samantha Stark and Times senior editor Liz Day choose to focus on Britney’s conservatorship, in which a court appoints a legal guardian to oversee a person’s financial affairs or daily life – or, in the singer’s case, both. Her conservator is her father, about whom no one interviewed seems to have anything good to say.
The length of the conservatorship – 13 years and running – and the fact that Britney is reportedly unhappy with it, and apparently of sound enough mind to continue to work and produce music, has culminated in the #FreeBritney movement, with fans but also fellow celebrities lining up to offer their support. The documentary itself has added fuel to this fire, but this is as journalists like to say a developing story. Stay tuned.
Meanwhile, the next generation of child superstar gets her own documentary in Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry, from director R.J. Cutler (Belushi, The World According to Dick Cheney). The pop superstar was just 13 when she gained notice for her song Ocean Eyes, written with her musical partner and brother Finneas O’Connell.
That was just six years ago. Since then, she’s gone from writing songs in her brother’s bedroom to – well, that’s still where she works in the documentary, which looks to have finished shooting just pre-pandemic. But rather than uploading her work to SoundCloud for people to find, she’s filling 15,000-seat venues in her 2019 world tour, and providing the title track for No Time to Die, whose latest release date (martini shaken, fingers crossed) is next October. Oh, and in 2020 she and O’Connell won all the Grammies.
Where Framing Britney Spears is a brief document, The World’s a Little Blurry in a monster, clocking in at two hours and 21 minutes. That may be a little much for non-fans, but it’s still an interesting take on a young person’s sudden rise to fame.
There’s an instructive sequence late in the film that captures the paradoxical nature of celebrity – we see Eilish overwhelmed by the demands of meeting and posing for photos with a bunch of “randos” from the record label, troubled the next day by a single social media post from someone who found her rude, and then lapping up attention from her fans. But that’s just being human. We crave attention – just not all the time.
Cutler clearly had a lot of access to his subject. Britney, in comparison, was asked to appear in the Times’ doc but even they don’t know if she received their request. We get a look at Eilish’s creative process, and witness a bizarre but sweet encounter where the teen idol meets her own teen idol, Justin Bieber. Though my favourite moment was when Katy Perry introduces her fiancé, and Eilish has the same after-the-fact reaction that I did: “That was Orlando Bloom?”
The film’s fade-to-black moment had me hoping for a title card that would read something like: Eilish continued to live a happy, creative life before passing away peacefully in 2102, aged 101. But who can say? It’s another life caught in mid-arc. We can only hope for the best.
Framing Britney Spears (4 stars out of 5) is available Feb. 26 on Crave. Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry (3 stars out of 5) is available Feb. 26 on AppleTV+