Review: 'Miss Americana'
Early in her remarkable career, I was as caught up with Taylor Swift’s explosive musical debut as any of her adoring teenage fans.
She was a stunning pretty young talent with real, raw talent.
She not only performed her songs, she wrote them. She had the drop-dead beauty of a leggy superstar fashion model coupled with the songwriting chops of someone like Cheryl Crow.
It was hard not to take notice. And be impressed.
She was young. She was full of vibrant energy.
And her future looked as sparkly and bright as her rhinestone-encrusted acoustic guitar illuminated by arena spotlights.
But then, as time passed, it seemed that she was becoming lost in the glamor and glitz of being a pop star.
Her success rocketed to ever escalating heights, but her songs seemed to gravitate into an endless stream of break-up ballads.
Her concerts became more and more spectacular, but she appeared to be tapped out creatively.
I gradually lost interest, writing her off as another pop star with a lot to see but less and less to say or sing about.
There were a few songs along the way that made me sit up and take notice such as "Shake It Off."
There were occasional news stories about her legal action resulting from being groped during a photo op and the legal fight over the ownership of her songs.
In general, she had fallen off my radar, but I readily admit that I am not her target audience and I’m sure she never missed my absence from the ranks of her cheering, stadium- jamming fans.
As such, I had mixed feelings about seeing the documentary Miss Americana. I must admit however that I was pleasantly surprised.
Miss Americana is a highly entertaining look at her musical career and a what appears to be a revealing portrait of her personal life that peels back at least a few layers of secrecy and mystery.
As expected, we see home video clips of the talented adolescent Taylor Swift delighting in performing songs she had written all by herself at a very early age.
She is brimming with talent and ambition.
The story follows her over the years charting her rise to the pinnacle of musical fame in both the country music world and later the world of pop music stardom.
We see Taylor writing songs at home on her piano with her pet kitten walking over the keys, and in the recording studio tirelessly working with her collaborators.
We glimpse her home life and her warm relationship with her ever-supportive, ever-present mom.
The camera is there backstage in her dressing room as she warms up for her sell-out performances and follows her as she sprawls in her limo back to the hotel afterward, occasionally baring her soul about the ups and downs of being a pop star icon.
It all feels intimate and unfiltered. It’s what we came to see.
As you might expect, part of the story is about the exhilarating happiness of realizing that all of your wildest dreams have come true.
She is aware of her good fortune, a product of her raw talent, boundless energy and shrewd business instincts. She’s as an unstoppable force that earns your respect and admiration.
But it all comes with a price. Early on, the devil’s pact of fortune and fame comes with the requirement of always being a “good girl.”
She knows that if she is going to be successful and accepted, she has to be wholesome and likeable.
She can never cross the line and say or do anything controversial or unpopular.
But that’s exactly what evenually happened.
In the crossover from country to pop, she became a commodity in competition with other young, sexy female performers who were topping the charts.
The costumes became increasingly revealing and attention-getting. She had become a victim of her own success, constantly in need of re-invention and re-branding, much like Madonna had done years before.
Along the way, events in Taylor’s life made her reassess her tightly controlled public persona and become a more vocal advocate for both women’s rights and gay rights.
She became more outspokenly political, against the advice of her handlers who warned that she would be writing off half of her fan base.
She did it anyway.
That part of Miss Americana is particularly impressive. You find yourself rooting for her.
Unlike many stars who actively avoiding controversy throughout their careers, she seemed to evolve and develop a real conscience.
I am not questioning Taylor Swift’s sincerity or commitment to the social causes she is shown supporting.
It’s just that she is a media-savvy superstar who knows how to control what she shares with the ever-present cameras and tape recorders.
In the case of Miss Americana, she is aware of the presence of the cameras and camera crews despite the appearance of eavesdropping and sneak-peeking into her private, supposedly unguarded moments.
It brings into question the level of unguarded honesty and truth that a documentary like this can reveal.
It’s an age-old question, dating back to the very first film that was actually called a documentary film. I’m speaking of Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922).
Scholars and historians still debate the authenticity of Flaherty’s depiction of traditional Eskimo life, when so much of it was recreated and staged for his camera.
The presence of a motion picture camera changes the things that it tries to capture. That’s even more the case when the subject is someone keenly aware of the power of images and the effect on one’s public persona.
As with all documentaries that stars make about themselves (like Madonna’s Truth or Dare), you have to question the level of truth and honesty.
I don’t, for a minute, doubt Taylor’s commitment to the causes she is shown to embrace.
But in a general sense, I am reminded that she is able to control what I see and hear and think about her.
While the camera seems to catch her in unguarded moments, we have to be reminded that she was always aware that the camera was present and rolling and that she could reveal as much or as little about herself as she chose.
It’s one of the fundamental issues of documentaries like this—how the presence of a camera and a film crew changes the nature of what they are documenting.
In Miss Americana, we see what Taylor Swift allowed us to see. And what she wanted us to think.
There are huge gaps and omissions, such as the much-publicized legal fight over the rights and ownership of her songs. It is never mentioned in the movie.
She also keeps her personal life private and personal. There is no mention of the guys she dated and broke up with or the songs that resulted from the heartache.
What is portrayed is a lonely existence of a driven composer/performer and the passing mention of someone special who came into her life and changed everything.
That person’s identity is never revealed.
Miss Americana may fall short of the in-depth, tell-all movie that fans might have hoped for.
Instead, it’s a highly entertaining, well produced, carefully guided tour into the life of a living legend whose story is still a work in progress.
For the time being, it’s what she’d like you to know.
Miss Americana is on Netflix.