Who is the worst person in Framing Britney Spears (Sky Documentaries), a new documentary about the troubled pop star? Perhaps it’s the paparazzo who stalked Britney in the midst of her mental breakdown to the point where finally she exploded and whacked his car with an umbrella. “That night was not a good night for her,” he says. A beat later: “But it was a good night for us because it was a money shot.”
Then again, was he any worse than Diane Sawyer, doyenne of US broadcasting, who adopted a mask of faux concern during a prime time interview and grilled a tearful Britney about the “pain and suffering” she had caused to Justin Timberlake, as if this young woman had committed war crimes rather than split up with a poodle-haired boy band singer?
And let’s give an honourable mention to Kendel Ehrlich, wife of the governor of Maryland, who told an anti-violence conference: “Really, if I had an opportunity to shoot Britney Spears, I think I would.”
The film has caused a stir in the US by dredging up this stuff. Its release is tied in with the latest stage in the singer’s legal battle to extricate herself from a conservatorship which gives her father, Jamie, control of her financial and personal affairs – a set-up that has prompted a #FreeBritney campaign by fans.
For those super-fans, the documentary supports their belief that Britney is some sort of prisoner, sending coded SOS messages via Instagram. For the rest of us, it’s a reminder of a celebrity who once dominated the headlines but then faded from view. When was the last time you gave any thought to Britney Spears? She exists in the collective memory as a handful of images: dressed as a schoolgirl in the ...Baby One More Time video, appearing with a python at the MTV Awards, shaving her head during a painfully public meltdown a few years later.
The conservatorship is an odd story, with significant details – such as a medical report seen by the judge – kept from public view. Arguably, the agreement was necessary to protect Britney and her millions when she was at her most erratic. But does she require one now, aged 39 and apparently stable enough to work? Why does the power rest with her father, a man she doesn’t appear to trust? Where is her mother in all of this? None of these questions could be answered because the New York Times, which made the film, failed to secure access to the main players in this story.
What we got instead was a dissection of Britney’s fame and how celebrity culture brought her to breaking point. It was uncomfortable viewing. Because weren’t we all complicit? The photographers were only out there because the public lapped up the pictures – the more chaotic, the better. There were no conversations about mental health back then. Britney was falling apart and we treated it as a joke. And while the paparazzi behaved like pack animals, those higher up the food chain were just as culpable, such as the preppy photo director of US Weekly who explained that images of a dishevelled Britney pushed up sales.
As Larry King and Anderson Cooper discussed one of Britney’s hospital admissions in 2008, studio guest Michael Moore chimed in as the quiet voice of reason: “Why don’t we just leave her alone and let her go on with her life?” The problem, of course, is that celebrities court publicity when they want it and it’s a tap they can’t turn off. But they deserve to be treated with basic decency.
The openness that made Britney so relatable to young fans, and the mix of sweetness and sexuality that clearly scrambled the brains of older interviewers, meant that she was directly asked in public about her virginity and her breasts. A supposedly upmarket men’s magazine, Details, ran a cover shot of Justin Timberlake with the strapline: “Hey… At least he got into Britney’s pants.” The odd thing, looking back now, is that at the time we didn’t find any of this objectionable.
Of course, you could argue that this film (and this review) is more of the same. It’s still rubbernecking, however seriously it takes the subject and however elegantly it sets out the timeline in that NYT typeface. But with Britney thanking her fans for their support and her lawyer declaring that “the whole world is watching”, at least now the attention is a help rather than a hindrance as she tries to reclaim control of her life.