PARK CITY, Utah — If you think the moon landing was staged, just wait till you see “Miss Americana,” the new documentary about pop star Taylor Swift.
Most of the film, which premiered Thursday night at the Sundance Film Festival and hits Netflix on Jan. 31, is more wooden than Pinnochio, offering little insight into a deeply enigmatic figure and mostly reiterating what we already know about one of the world’s most famous women.
Swift works very hard. Duh, she’s released seven albums in 13 years. Kanye West storming the stage during her VMAs win was upsetting. Um, yeah! She had her first taste of a burrito two years ago. Alright, I didn’t know that.
Here’s the thing — Swift, 30, cherishes her privacy. If you hadn’t yet surmised that from her more than a decade of press shyness, you will from the gazillion times she says so in “Miss Americana.” She is the rare celebrity who can stay intensely relevant while keeping mostly mum. And there’s nothing wrong with that… unless you are participating in a documentary about your own life.
Truth be told, her song “Fifteen” is far more revealing than anything in this purported behind-the-scenes glimpse.
“Miss Americana” begins with Swift sitting at the piano of her Tennessee home as her kitten walks all over the keys. It looks like a TV ad. Then, against the windowsill of what appears to be her childhood bedroom — everything here is vague as a D-student’s book report — she runs down the themes of the doc: she always wanted to be a “good girl”; “those pats on the head were all I lived for”; ”I became the person everybody wanted me to be.”
That sets up the rest of the movie to be Swift trying to break free of her constant aim to please, as she did creatively with the album “Reputation.” The biggest section is devoted to her coming out of the political closet as a supporter of the Democratic nominee for senate in Tennessee. Previously, she held close to the mantra “don’t force your politics on people,” but that went out the window in 2018.
We watch the moment she tweets out her endorsement of Phil Bredesen, flanked by her mom, publicist and a bottle of white wine. Sorry, but staring at a person as they tweet isn’t exciting, even when that person is Taylor Swift.
Politics is one of the only subjects Swift seems comfortable discussing with director Lana Wilson at length. For instance, she never mentions British beau Joe Alwyn by name, and we see them walk out of a concert venue just once. Bringing up her quest for love, she laments the loneliness of fame, saying “Shouldn’t I have someone that I could call right now?” She then adds that she found someone and “decided together that we wanted our relationship to be private.” And that’s what happens — even in the film about her life. We never see him again.
There is an upside here, though. Swift boasts so many impressionable young fans, who will watch “Miss Americana” countless times, and she brings up a few personal troubles that will be good for them to hear about. The singer talks about her struggle with an “unhealthy” relationship with food, and how she’s come to realize that “it’s better to think you look fat than look sick.” That’s a strong message in the Instagram age. So is what she says about the toxicity of social media. When we learn her mom Andrea is in a battle with cancer, Swift says it gave her perspective on her online bullies. “Do you really care that the internet doesn’t like you if your mom is sick from her chemo?,” she asks.
Regardless, “Miss Americana” is far too coy a documentary to fully satisfy anybody. Wilson said in a speech before the premiere begin that she was sworn to secrecy during filming, and was not even allowed to tell her parents what she was up to for an entire year. That KGB-like control unfortunately bled into the final product.
When making a documentary, you just gotta shake it off.
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