It’s safe to say that by the end of Miss Americana, a quickie documentary on the recent trials and tribulations of Taylor Swift opening this year’s Sundance film festival, few positions will have truly shifted. Those who already idolised the award-winning musician will continue to do so, as will the non-fans who might still begrudgingly admire her undeniable talent. And those who have questioned her knack for playing the victim as well as her lack of self-awareness will also find their minds similarly unchanged. Here is a character study authored by the character who’s being studied, a carefully controlled continuation of a story we have been following now for years. It’s brand management dressed up as insight and while it’s not not entertaining, it’s certainly far from particularly revealing, playing more like a PR exercise then a festival-worthy feature.
At the start of the film, as Swift sifts through old journals, she explains that she always needed to “be thought of as good”, and it’s a desire that permeates the film with every possible punch being pulled by director Lana Wilson, whose films have previously focused on hard-hitting topics such as suicide and late-term abortion. It’s not that Swift is in need of a dressing down – far from it – but there are glaring questions left unanswered, avenues left unexplored and a wider perspective sorely missing from her retelling of events.
Wilson has unprecedented access to Swift, the kind of intimacy journalists have been craving for years from an artist who has kept herself understandably at arm’s length at specific times of her life. The film follows her throughout her two most recent albums, both spurred by very different motivations, and in what feels like a scattered and confusing timeline we hop back and forth to earlier glimpses of the career that got her to where she now stands, as one of the most famous women in the world. But while Wilson is the credited director, it’s Swift who’s in charge, a masterly musical storyteller transporting that gift to the screen, recounting her life and revealing her personality on her terms. It’s a celebrity profile that’s been sent to the celebrity for approval first.
What the film does show, in some of its most charming moments, is Swift’s astonishing talent for music, exemplified in a handful of magnetic studio interludes as we see her create some of her most recent hits. It’s a pleasure to watch her in these scenes, cannily crafting lyrics alongside Jack Antonoff and Max Martin, excitedly working with a tangible enthusiasm. It’s where she truly shines in the film, as events outside the studio often lack depth and objectivity, something that would elevate as well as ground the star’s image. We’re shown that Swift’s lowest point was being interrupted on stage at the VMAs by Kanye West (“It was a catalyst for a lot,” she says), and while his behaviour remains unacceptable, there’s no realisation from her about the reasons that led him there, the ongoing lack of diversity shown by awards bodies and the effect this has had on artists of colour. When Swift talks about the pressure she has always felt as a woman who needed to be seen as nice and compliant, an explanation for her late-stage embrace of politics, we’re never given insight into how she was raised and how her parents played a part in the often regressive view of femininity she has learned to push back against. When Swift briefly mentions her mother’s cancer or her father’s fears for her safety, we never get to hear from either of them, or much from Swift herself.
Whenever the documentary threatens to lead us to a place that’s challenging or dark or knotty, such as Swift’s discussion of a previously unrevealed eating disorder, Wilson pulls back. Swift is never challenged by Wilson or by anyone around her. It’s almost exclusively a string of scenes where people agree with her, no matter the subject.
The last act pushes Swift as an activist of some stature and while well-intentioned, the congratulatory nature of the film’s view is again lacking in context. Like most of the film it feels like self-mythologising, and while Swift emerges as charming, funny, talented and smart, there’s a grit missing that would have humanised her further. After the premiere Swift spoke about the hours of interview footage the pair recorded and one wonders what was left on the cutting-room floor because this is too slickly selective to feel like a genuine portrait of a woman with fascinating stories to tell.
It’s hard to critique Miss Americana as a real film and as one that would even be showing at Sundance in the first place, a festival aimed at shining a light on diverse and challenging voices. It’s hard to see it as an independent piece of work from a documentarian and not a talent-approved Netflix featurette. Fans will surely embrace it, and Swift’s brand of feminism and liberalism will definitely be of value to a younger audience, but she remains an enigmatic construct. Like so many documentaries and biopics that have been either produced or authorised by the star at the centre, we’re being shown exactly what they want us to see and there’s something uneasy about what that represents. Swift will remain a deservedly successful singer with a rare talent but we may never get to know her as anything more than that.
Miss Americana is showing at the Sundance film festival and will be available on Netflix from 31 January