Pihla Pekkarinen reviews Taylor Swift’s new documentary.
Miss Americana is undoubtedly one of the most high-profile films arriving at Sundance this year. Taylor Swift first dropped the news of a Netflix documentary in a social media post publicly accusing Scooter Braun and Scott Borchetta of attempting to prevent the film from being released due to their ownership of her original master recordings. Fans and fellow artists flocked to her defense and, three months later, her documentary premiered at Sundance Film Festival. Directed by Lana Wilson, the film spans several years of Swift’s life, and includes intimate interviews, recordings of studio sessions, and a few f-bombs which provoked audible gasps from the audience. According to an interview with Swift, Miss Americana looks at the “flipside of being America’s sweetheart,” exposing some of the challenges Swift faces as she embarks on the process of writing her latest album, Lover.
The film zeroes in on a few pivotal moments of the singer’s life, orienting itself around themes of change and growth. One of these moments is her public feud with Kanye West, which ended with #TaylorSwiftIsOverParty trending worldwide on Twitter and Swift disappearing from the public eye for a year to lick her wounds. To the film’s merit, there is no attempt to defend Swift or explain her actions. Instead, it simply states the facts of the feud, and focuses on the aftermath, including Swift’s reaction to going from publicly adored to generally reviled overnight. The film is (obviously) sympathetic towards Swift, but not as overtly as one might expect.
Another pivotal moment the film details is Swift’s sexual assault trial and her subsequent foray into politics after years of public neutrality. Though depicted to be an earth-shattering shift for Swift, she remains surprisingly apolitical throughout. Her discussion of the trial feels like the only moment in the film where she acknowledges her position of privilege, or the existence of an unequal society. Swift describes the ordeal as humiliating and degrading, “and this was with seven witnesses and a photograph. What happens when you were raped, and it’s your word against his?” Otherwise, the singer’s politics, which the film suggests are “radical,” seem limited to “women and gay people should have rights,” and this discrepancy proves grating.
Your enjoyment of this documentary depends entirely on whether or not you buy into Taylor Swift’s victim narrative. Miss Americana acknowledges this frequent criticism of her, but does nothing to subvert it. Swift is portrayed as a victim of the media, of the public, of her stardom – the odds are stacked against her, and she manages to rise above. The film doesn’t deliver on its promise to show the flipside of being America’s sweetheart; it’s simply another angle, still from the front, maybe with less shadows. The film was not during the worst year of her life; it was made afterwards, in retrospect, to ensure her performance remains slick and smooth. The vulnerability I was hoping for? The film fails to get there.
If there is one thing Miss Americana does right, it lies in capturing Swift’s spirit. The film is not aimed at finding new audiences: Swift doesn’t need to do that, and it’s doubtful she will gain any new fans from this documentary. But for pre-existing fans, it is a beautiful 90-minute concentrated dose of Taylor; kittens, clumsiness, faux-vulnerability, and all. If that’s your thing (like it is mine), it’s perfect. If it’s not, maybe give this one a pass. Miss Americana has little artistic merit beyond its subject matter, and if you aren’t a Taylor fan, this film probably isn’t for you.
Miss Americana will be released worldwide on Netflix and in select theatres on 31 January 2020. Check out the trailer below: