'Miss Americana': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Netflix
Taylor-made for budding feminists of all ages.
1/31/2020

Taylor Swift opens up about her support for women's rights and female empowerment in director Lana Wilson's Netflix documentary.

Singer-songwriter Taylor Swift had a buzzed-about role last month playing Bombalurina in Cats, a fleeting appearance that was still one of the better-liked parts of that much-mauled package. But anyone familiar with the chanteuse would realize that was just a larky side gig compared to the multi-platform, many-layered performance that is being Taylor Swift, international superstar, 24/7 and all year round.

It's a show that's been going on for over half her life (she recently turned 30), ever since Swift started performing as an adolescent in the country music scene and was signed to a major label at the age of 14. Literally the role of a lifetime, it's one that demands range, stamina, craftsmanship and marketing savvy as well as, duh, talent to build a brand with gargantuan international appeal. Somehow, Swift always seems to be playing "Taylor Swift," a creation she is entirely in control of, but a creation nevertheless, authored just like the various quasi-fictional personas who populate the songs she writes.

This is not meant in any way to be an accusation that Swift is "fake" or "phony," shade we see being thrown in Swift's direction by professional haters from the media commentariat in Miss Americana, director Lana Wilson's fascinating Netflix documentary feature about the star. But it sometimes feels like the Taylor Swift we've seen performing onstage, vamping it up in videos or lobbing back conversational patter in interviews is very much a poised, perfectly coiffed and immaculately costumed construction. Like a great drag artist, Swift is both the magician creating the illusion and the glamorous assistant, too, all in one pretty, sequined package.

At one point, Wilson and the cadre of five editors credited here insert a fab montage of some of the many times Swift executes an instant costume change onstage by having one set of clothes suddenly ripped away, only to reveal another perfect ensemble underneath. It's an apt metaphor for the movie itself, as it seeks to show managed and formally designed sides of Swift herself, ones she seldom exposes to the public. There are moments where she's dressed in sweats so baggy and schlubby you could possibly hide two or three Billie Eilishes inside. Elsewhere, she even allows the camera to capture her face seemingly without makeup or at most just an immaculately applied layer of matte lipstick, especially when she's just hanging with friends, family (her mother Andrea in particular) or completely focused on composing songs with producer-musician-collaborators Louis Bell or Jack Antonoff. Bravest of all, in a sequence shot recently as she travels in a car and talks unreservedly to Wilson off camera, she discusses her past struggle with an eating disorder, a condition triggered by the constant scrutiny of her own image.

Given how obsessive Swift's fan base is with their idol's physical image, it's very admirable she's willing here to open up about her own issues in this area, setting a positive example to viewers who might be vulnerable in a similar way. Indeed, Miss Americana is very much about speaking up and out. A key section revolves around Swift's decision to drop the carefully maintained apolitical stance adopted since the beginning of her career and come out before the 2018 midterms for Democratic candidates in her home state of Tennessee. Then-candidate, now-senator Marsha Blackburn particularly raises Swift's ire, given Blackburn's refusal to support legislation to protect women from domestic violence and stalking, the latter a problem that directly affects Swift herself as is mentioned several times in the film. One of the movie's almost comic highlights shows nothing much more than Swift sitting on a sofa, ginning herself up to post on Instagram her support for Blackburn's opponent Phil Bredesen, cheered on by mother and publicist, aware that hitting the button on her phone may change the course of her career.

Okay, the scene is just a teensy weensy bit irritatingly self-congratulatory, and you can't help sensing that this new, socially conscious, politically savvy Taylor is also a construct, albeit one that is entirely sincere. But she knows that, too. What's ultimately very endearing about Swift is her intelligence and self-awareness, qualities that also make her music compelling, sophisticated and capable of appealing both to adolescent kids and hipster musicologists.

In fact, music buffs will be especially drawn to the attention paid here to Swift's working practice. There's much less emphasis on the big, showy concert performances, although those are indeed glimpsed throughout, than on the collaborative process by which she writes songs, bouncing ideas off fellow musicians such as Antonoff, Bell or Panic! at the Disco's Brendon Urie, who duets with Swift on "Me!," a kitschy confection of a single with a music video featuring kittens, unicorns and every shade of pastel.

Near the end of the film, Swift says she wants to be able to still wear pink and talk about politics seriously, and the film sees her finding her way toward creating an aesthetic that marries elements cohesively. If she gets bored with being America's pop princess in the next few years, perhaps she could consider using her ample gifts for messaging and grassroots coalition-building in the political realm outright. After all, by 2024 she'll be 35 and eligible to run for president. It's about time we had a cat lover in the White House.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres) 
Distribution: Netflix
With: Taylor Swift, Joe Alwyn, Andrea Swift, Scott Swift, Tree Paine, Karamo Brown, Brendon Urie, Jonathan Van Ness, Jack Antonoff, Louis Bell
Production: A Netflix Original Documentaries presentation of a Tremolo Productions production
Director: Lana Wilson
Producers: Morgan Neville, Christine O'Malley, Caitrin Rogers
Cinematographer: Emily Topper
Editors: Paul Marchand, Greg O'Toole, Lee Rosch, Lindsay Utz, Jason Zeldes
Music: Alex Somers
No rating; 86 minutes