Miss Americana, the 85-minute Taylor Swift pop star documentary that dropped on Netflix on Friday, is, like many similar portraits, hard to examine as a film on its own merits. Particularly in the age of the internet and social media, these celebrity sagas are told over hours and minutes, then weeks and years — so quickly and fleetingly that a feature film has no real hope of matching the feverish pace.
Still, Miss Americana does a decent job of capturing Swift at present, and finds a simple, if contrived, narrative of newfound maturity to string together the scenes and guide Swift’s fairly blunt assessment of her current state of mind. Although it doesn’t touch her current battle with Scooter Braun and her wrestle for control of her back catalog, we do get her pained and belated emergence as a political voice, a somehow lengthy and yet incomplete revisiting of the Kanye saga, and some raw, vulnerable reveals about her eating disorder and sexual assault case that are among the film’s most poignant moments.
These flash points — interspersed with archival footage tracing the full length of Swift’s career along with documentary footage of touring and recording during the album cycles for 2017’s Reputation and 2019’s Lover — are the raw materials that the film works with, to ends that range from pleasing to bland.
Whatever its merits as a film, though (and this one is spotty), viewers are going to constantly be drawn toward the meta-context surrounding the various Swift threads of the last decade and a half. Do we find her genuine or manipulative? Is she a true good girl done wrong, or adept at playing the victim? Is she a great songwriter, performer, impresario, role model? How do we feel, exactly, about Taylor Swift?
To the film’s credit, it at least attempts to address these topics directly. Swift tearfully ties her eating disorder, for instance, to paparazzi photos and media attention about her body. She admits to a near-pathological need to be liked and applauded — something which is true of almost any performer, but rarely acknowledged quite so plainly by our biggest superstars.
The larger framing of her career — driven by a guileless need to please before giving way to an emergent sense of self following the Kanye-Kim phone recording fiasco — might strike some as overly pat. But the broad strokes are fairly convincing. It’s hard to deny, for instance, that current beau Joe Alwyn has offered far less tabloid fodder than past romances, or that Swift has drawn back from her celebrity gallivanting circa 2014’s 1989. Her clumsy political awakening, for all of its cringe-y-ness, also plays into this narrative well.
The film’s handling of these plot points is overly contrived. The conversation between Swift and her father — he’s worried about her safety if she delves into politics — feels even more staged and rehearsed than these moments in such films almost always do, and the glimpses and coy bits of background into Alwyn are painfully calculated, to the point where it’s hard to sense of what’s real.
What does feel real, surprisingly, is Swift’s interrogation of her own celebrity. She mentions in passing the axiom that stars are stuck at whatever age they got famous, a problem that she seems to have dealt with for much of the last decade. And the way she talks about her loneliness, along with her clear sense of the unreality of her day-to-day interactions with nearly everyone she meets, suggests that she does engage thoughtfully with the bizarre bubble she finds herself in. And even though it’s all on camera, you do see her turn herself off and on, pivoting from an almost ungainly shuffle and casual, girl-next-door demeanor to gushing and poised superstar. Both characters feel equally real, whatever that means.
In the end, the documentary feels like it will mostly just be a transitionary reference for how Swift understands this particular moment in her career. There’s not quite enough here to be truly revelatory, and the work it needs to do grappling with Swift’s current dilemmas ultimately shades everything in a way that won’t allow the film itself to age all that gracefully.
Still, if you’re a fan, or even just casually interested in pop music, it almost goes without saying that Taylor Swift has been one of the most dominant forces in music over the last decade, which makes the film’s content interesting enough to contemplate.
And the kitten that stumbles over her piano in the opening scene is real cute.