'Billie Eilish: The World's a Little Blurry': Film Review

Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry
Courtesy of Apple TV+

Billie Eilish

We like it like that, like it like that.

Singer-songwriter Billie Eilish and her family are followed over the course of several years for this Apple TV+ documentary, written and directed by R.J. Cutler ('The September Issue').

There's an interesting moment in the documentary Billie Eilish: The World's a Little Blurry where singer-songwriter Billie Eilish's brother-producer-collaborator Finneas explains to his and Billie's mother, Maggie Baird, that he's been told by the label to write a hit. The problem is that Billie, he notes, "hates writing songs in general and is … so woke about her own persona on the internet that she's terrified of anything that she makes being hated. And her equation is that the more popular something is the more hate it's gonna get." This is the paradoxical mathematics of musical cool, as eternal as pi or the speed of light: The more fans you get, the more fans you lose.

In a stealthy way, writer-director R.J. Cutler's vérité-style portrait for Apple TV+ is all about this dilemma, right down to the film's own low-key rock-doc aesthetic as it observes Eilish and her family — a bit combative at times with both each other and the camera's gaze, but always self-aware — living through a remarkable three-year period, from early breakout moments to Grammy-winning triumph. Billie may have her name in the title, but it feels as if Cutler — best known for such films as The September Issue and the recent Belushi — is interested in her brother and actor-musician parents just as much, if not a little more. Fan service is amply provided by extensive musical interludes, showing Eilish performing on tour and composing in the home studio with Finneas. But the family drama is the real meat of the movie. It almost plays like a Highland Park hipster version of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, although as a family the O'Connells have way more angst and innate talent (even if they seem, in their own boho way, as L.A. as you can get).

None of that hurts the film. In fact, that broader scope will serve it well given that it's likely to be family viewing in some homes, appealing to the largely female, teenage demographic that makes up Eilish's hardcore fan base, while still offering something for parents to relate to in the watching. And if nothing else, it's a reassuring advertisement for home schooling, given how well these kids seem to have turned out; Billie and Finneas are high-achieving, deeply creative souls who seem well-suited to the lives they're making for themselves.

Of course, fans will be most interested in getting to know Billie herself, and the film shows her in all her quirky glory. Drawing on a rich seam of home-shot footage of Billie's performing as a young child with both her parents (who are actor-musicians themselves and taught the kids music) and Finneas, the film makes clear that her talent has been nurtured with care, but not necessarily hothoused.

Footage showing her talking with earnest fan-girl passion at the age of 12 about her idol Justin Bieber both serves to underscore a certain normalcy while also providing a surprising narrative thread. Around halfway through the film, just before her debut album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? is about to drop when she's 17 years old, we see her reacting with breathless, giddy glee as she gets a direct message from the Biebster himself offering to collaborate on a song. Later on, they actually meet in the flesh and enjoy a hug that moves Billie to tears, paralleling the rapturous way her own fans react to her. She also meets Katy Perry at one point and, quite charmingly, totally fails to take in that Perry's fiancé is Orlando Bloom, an actor she used to love in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

Given that the film is coming out on Apple TV+ not long after the airing of Framing Britney Spears, a documentary about a very different but no less vulnerable child singing star from another generation, it's not surprising that viewers may find themselves scrutinizing The World's a Little Blurry for signs of mental instability in Billie. As it happens, the musician has always been upfront about her darker preoccupations, discussing drug use among friends ("Xanny") and suicides among her peers ("Bury a Friend") and speaking out forcefully against the media's obsession with her body shape.

What is perhaps less well known is the fact that Billie has Tourette syndrome, which causes her to tic and move her head abruptly, and we see it flaring up here when she's tired and on tour. One of the most unsettling scenes in the film comes toward the end when an exhausted Billie is cajoled to come out and take pictures with an assortment of "randos" she doesn't know in order to keep her entourage happy; her mother Maggie is instrumental in ushering her truculent daughter along.

The next day Billie has quite a meltdown about the experience and everyone, clearly mindful of the running cameras, apologizes for pushing her too hard. The scene is brutally uncomfortable, partly because it makes us feel a little sorry for Billie and a little sorry for everyone else, and somewhat soiled by the whole experience. Cutler and his editing team do their best to take the bad taste out of our mouths by ending the film on a high as Billie wins an armful of Grammy awards. But the dark-side-of-fame part of the story lingers in the mind.

That said, given how much Eilish's own self-aware music questions just how great it is to get "Everything I Wanted," to quote the title of one of her recent songs, maybe that uncomfortable feeling is what she wants us to reckon with here.

Distribution: Neon/Apple TV+
With: Billie Eilish O'Connell, Finneas O'Connell, Maggie Baird, Patrick O'Connell, Justin Bieber
Production: An Interscope Films, Darkroom production, in association with Lighthouse Management + Media, This Machine
Director/screenwriter: R.J. Cutler
Producers: R.J. Cutler, Trevor Smith, Michelle An, Chelsea Dodson, Anthony Seyler
Executive producers: John Janick, Steve Berman, Justin Lubliner, Brandon Goodman, Danny Rukasin, Aleen Keshishian, Margaret Riley, Zack Morgenroth, Todd Lubin, Jay Peterson
Director of photography: Jenna Rosher
Editors: Greg Finton, Lindsay Utz
Songs: Billie Eilish O'Connell, Finneas O'Connell
Music editor: Michael Brake
Sound: Jae Kim
141 minutes