So, I’m not a Taylor Swift fan. I don’t have an issue with her, I just don’t care for her style of pop music. I do however love documentaries about musicians and bands. This film has been recommended to me numerous times so I’m finally getting around to checking it out. Miss Americana is currently streaming on Netflix.
My take away from the film is a mixed bag, mostly negative which is odd considering how many people love the movie. The issues I have though I don’t believe are the fault of the icon alone. Much of the failure of the film falls on the shoulders of the filmmaker. Every documentary begins with an agenda, a story to tell. The director must at least go in with a sense of the story arc, the beginning, middle, and end. The rest of the film can be defined by the journey the subject takes the filmmaker on but the skeleton of intent must be in place. Where things can often go wrong is when the filmmaker also has a message agenda along with the story arc. Often the message can overtake the story and begin to script a film rather than leave it as a real documentary. The message here is clear, “Taylor Swift is a good person. She is just misunderstood and you should like her.” It’s not clear whether the message was a requirement of the pop singer or if the style of telling this story was solely the decision of the director. I’d wager it was 50/50.
The film lacks a narrative. We see video of Swift’s early years singing then the film hits highpoints every year to current. What we get is chronological but there’s no strong narrative that we can glom onto to root for her. A potential narrative is there; it’s just not truly taken advantage of. There’s footage of her writing songs with an engineer for her latest album. Wouldn’t it have been cool if here writing, recording, and releasing that album was a through story that we could follow while learning all of the other highpoints of her life and career? We could see the culmination of all of the work of the new album and get answers to questions such as, is the album good, did it come out the way she wanted it too, is it a success? Instead everything comes off like paint by numbers, just hitting bullet points with sound bites.
Controversies surrounding Swift’s life and career are referenced but only in the shallow end of the pool and they are completely one sided. Life isn’t one sided, as good as you can be, no one is perfect. Swift’s eating disorder is also referenced but not given the weight it deserves. It feels as if we just get a sound bite for each bullet point, each chapter in the film, but no single deep sit down interview. Again, I don’t know if that’s the failing of the filmmaker or Swift’s decision. Either way, it feels false and often contrived. It seems like there’s so much there that could be discussed and examined no one is willing to just get real. Also, one bullet point is revisited in sound bite form too often: Swift has a problem with wanting everyone to like her all the time. It’s nice that she’s willing to admit she has a problem with this but it’s framed as if it’s a struggle for her but no one goes into any detail about the struggle. It’s as if we are just supposed to take her at her word that it just sucks. Also, when this bullet point is repeated between epic record sales, extreme popularity, and countless awards, it comes off winey instead of impactful. This is just bad filmmaking.
The best parts of Miss Americana are the scenes of her writing and creating her music. She obviously has talent and it’s really interesting to see her process. These sequences should have given us a narrative. There’s also no interviews of substance with anyone other than Swift herself. Her mother in the film quite a bit but is never interviewed. What about her father? Not referenced at all. She had an epic battle with distribution methods for her music, even pulling it from Spotify at one point, not referenced at all. The biggest failing is the lack of depth in her story. Her overwhelming concern about how she is perceived may have just simply gotten in the way of Miss Americana being a real film.