The Taylor Swift documentary Miss Americana is streaming on Netflix.
Miss Americana cast: Taylor Swift
Miss Americana Director: Lana Wilson
Miss Americana Rating: 2 stars
Miss Americana director Lana Wilson’s glimpse into the life of singer-songwriter Taylor Swift opens with the latter tinkering with the ivories and figuring a melody, while Benjamin Button, Swift’s feline friend, walks on the keys. Benjamin’s compositional skills may still be under question but his presence in this scene, in the recent documentary on Swift and her music, creates a genuine moment in what otherwise is a somewhat studied and strategic attempt to tell the story of a fine musician and performer. Instead of Wilson, it’s Swift who seems in control of the narrative she wants people to take home. The other absolutely earnest moments include those where she is seen and heard making music in the studio, sweating it out over a melody, with hardly any make-up on, with only her lyrics and producer Joe Little for company.
Swift begins by talking about being “fulfilled by approval” only from the strangers who heard her music, how she became “a person who everyone wanted her to be” and “someone who has built their whole belief system on getting people to clap” for her. She then takes us through years of feeling hurt after Kanye West interrupted her during her VMA acceptance speech and screamed that “Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time”, followed by an eating disorder, being out of action while the world that loved her was calling her names, and later her political awakening — where she had called out to her fans to come out and vote and not choose Republican Marsha Blackburn in her home state of Tennessee so that they don’t put “a homophobic racist in office”, who is just “Trump in a wig”.
But when a documentary filmmaker gets “unprecedented access” to their subject, which Wilson had, one also expects the results to put on display everything about an artiste — the good and the bad, the resilience and the vulnerability, happy and sad and everything in between. And that is what is also at the heart of the problem. The actual story is too cosmetic. There is a scene where Swift is heard, on speaker, talking to her publicist in 2018 about the nomination of her record, Reputation, where she hears about not finding a nomination. But the truth of the matter was that Swift was not eligible to be nominated in 2018, as her record had been released in November (nominations are only included till October 31) and she did find nominations in 2019. But why would Wilson include this bit, one doesn’t understand. If it is to show that Swift finds other’s approval significant, then the artiste says it in as many words. The scene looks staged and frankly, quite irritating.
Then there is the problem of not going deeper into an issue. One wishes that Wilson had spoken to Swift’s parents (who are a part of the documentary) about her eating disorder, or, for example, when Swift speaks about her mother dealing with cancer. It’s just left there. One understands the concept of interpretation, but a documentary can’t be drawing so many blanks.
The film attempts to triumph with Swift’s conversations with her parents about wanting to talk about her stand on politics and being able to make a difference. It could have taken an intrinsic arc, but again, there is no conversation with her parents, her friends, and people who know her.
For Wilson, whose other documentaries include After Tiller and The Departure, the lessons lie in the exhaustively chronicled life of Amy Winehouse in Asif Kapadia’s Amy. In this case, she even has the artiste, whom the filmmaker could have drawn out and asked tougher questions.
There are problems when one attempts to editorialise documentaries. In the film, Taylor Swift admits to being extremely conscious about how she is portrayed — at a concert, in an interview, in a newspaper. She may have rid her of the notion, as she says. But the result of a documentary on Swift is actually not a documentary. It’s more tailor-made than one would like.