‘Miss Americana’ is 85 minutes of translucence with Taylor Swift. There’s more in it — and more to it — than you usually get with these pop superstar portraits. I, at least, don’t recall loneliness being such a predominant condition for Swift’s peers as it is, here, for her.
Not long after the movie doles out a deluxe rise-to-the-top montage, we hear Swift ask no one in particular, “Shouldn’t I have someone to call right now?” This from a woman who’s famous — notorious, actually — for her squad of besties. Otherwise, it’s lonely up there. Even the man she says she’s seeing is a figment in this movie, cropped from images, a hand-holding blur, a ghost.
On Grammy nomination day in the winter of 2018, a camera watches from a low angle as Swift sits in sweats alone on a sofa and hears from her publicist that her perturbed sixth album, ‘Reputation’, has been omitted from three of the big categories. She’s stoic. She’s almost palpably hurt. But Swift’s songwriting treats hurt as an elastic instrument, and she resolves in that moment of snubbing, “I just need to make a better record.” And the movie watches as she writes and records ‘Lover’, another album eventually rejected by the string-pullers at the Grammys.
Along the way, Swift does a lot of ruminating and recounting, a lot of arguing and apologising on her own behalf. She’s rueful about sitting out the 2016 presidential election and failing to mobilise her millions of fans and followers against Donald Trump’s candidacy. So ‘Miss Americana’ is also about an apolitical star waking up to herself as a woman and a citizen.
She wants to spend her “good girl” credit to decry the scorched-earth-conservative Senate campaign that Marsha Blackburn was running in Tennessee, Swift’s adopted home. Her management team deems this unwise. The team, at that symbolic point, is two slouchy, old white men who counter their client’s raging passion with financial and prehistoric umbrage. It’s part of a strong stretch of the movie that argues that Swift’s own experience with a handsy (and consequently litigious) radio personality helped push her off the fence — a passage that culminates with the most stressful sending of an Instagram post you’re likely to see from a star.
Swift’s success rate as an activist is nominal; Blackburn is currently enduring impeachment arguments with 99 other senators. But what’s bracing about this film, which Lana Wilson directed, is the way it weds Swift’s loneliness and her arrival at empowerment. That’s at least how I’m receiving her support last summer of pro-gay legislation that culminated in the video for her hit ‘You Need to Calm Down.’ It teemed with famous queer people, and watching its partial making in this movie made me understand that she was campaigning not just for gay rights, but possibly for new friends.
Yet, the most absorbing parts of ‘Miss Americana’ involve Swift’s reckoning with the disillusionment of dislike — not simply other people’s but her own. When she’s watching footage of herself on a video set and says “I have a really slappable face,” it’s a throwaway self-deprecation. But it’s also a shocking symptom of the toll of her strange public life.
Her departure that day from her fan-barnacled building leads her to ruminate, minutes later, about the toll that level of attention has taken on her psyche. Swift confesses that, for some while, she couldn’t stand to see pictures of herself because she’d scrutinise rather than simply look; the scrutiny spurred an eating disorder.
Here’s Swift personalising the diseased nature of fame, a condition she’s considered with envy and rue in her songwriting, namely on ‘The Lucky One’ from ‘Red’, a masterpiece album from 2012 that navigates stadium, dance floor and diary. (Swift philosophises, at some late point, that stars are stuck at the age they became famous.)
This documentary isn’t as coherent as ‘Truth or Dare’, the Olympic standard for pop-star portraiture. But Madonna had found a coherent persona by the time of that movie. Swift is still eking hers out. Along with her music, she’s evolving.
That’s a part of the documentary’s assertion — her creative and personal maturity come with a cost, obviously. But its most exhilarating disclosure is that Swift finds herself determined to pay it.
Don’t miss it!
‘Taylor Swift: Miss Americana’ is streaming now on Netflix. Watch the trailer below: