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Radical transparency is Demi Lovato’s brand. Over her 14 or so years in the spotlight, the pop star and Disney Channel alum has revealed her struggles with addiction, self-harm and eating disorders, along with her bipolar-disorder diagnosis and the abuse she and her mother suffered at the hands of Lovato’s father (who fought his own battles with mental illness and substance issues). The singer previously discussed her recovery process in the 2012 MTV documentary Demi Lovato: Stay Strong and the 2017 YouTube follow-up Demi Lovato: Simply Complicated. The next year, Lovato was in the midst of shooting a concert doc when she was hospitalized for an opioid overdose. The story behind her relapse, after six years of sobriety, is the subject of the new docuseries Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil.
Debuting at this year’s virtual SXSW as its opening-night headliner and streaming on Lovato’s YouTube channel in four parts on a weekly schedule starting March 23rd, Dancing With the Devil is brutally honest even by its subject’s standards. Needlessly to say, it’s far more candid than the usual album-promoting documentary (a category this series also falls into), as a photo of her smoking heroin shortly before her overdose can attest. Refreshingly, Lovato also exposes the often invisible help that celebrities enjoy through interviews with her chief of staff, her business manager and her new manager Scooter Braun (also an EP here), explicitly acknowledging the wealth that has bought her this crucial support.
AIR DATE Mar 23, 2021
It’s easy enough to see which aspects of Dancing With the Devil will grab headlines. As a result of the overdose — now assumed to be caused by oxycodone laced with fentanyl — Lovato suffered a heart attack, three strokes and brain damage that resulted in permanent blind spots. Because of that vision impairment, she can no longer drive, nor can she reliably pour a pitcher of water into a glass. It feels mildly voyeuristic just to hear these symptoms listed aloud, but it’s also somewhat bracing to learn what life after an overdose can look like, at least in this one — all things considered, extremely lucky — case.
Such are the three phases of viewer response to Lovato’s disclosures, which play out over and over again throughout Dancing With the Devil: shock at a revelation, followed by slight discomfort at how much we’re told, followed by appreciation that at least someone’s talking about this stuff, albeit from a position of unimaginable privilege. Lovato’s frank to the point of risking judgment, as when she admits that, shortly after leaving the hospital, she relapsed again.
Frustratingly, all this honesty is sometimes undermined aesthetically by production choices. The slickness that director Michael D. Ratner (Justin Bieber: Seasons) aspires to takes the form of some awkwardly phrased, obviously fed lines (“I crossed a line that I had never crossed in the world of addiction”). At other times, Lovato’s openness is underserved by Ratner’s preference for momentum over proper contextualization, especially for her fanbase of girls and young women. The singer reveals, for example, that on two occasions that she was sexually assaulted (including by the dealer who sold her the drugs that led to her overdose), she contacted the perpetrators thereafter in a “textbook” post-traumatic response in an effort to “rewrite” the evening in question and thus minimize her pain. But Ratner glosses over Lovato’s description of that response — the “why” doesn’t seem to matter to him as much as the “what.”
Ratner fares a bit better in his handling of Lovato’s explanation of her decision to now choose moderation in alcohol and marijuana usage in lieu of the absolute sobriety that the singer feels set her up to fail. Braun and Elton John (who briefly appears in the final episode, along with Christina Aguilera and Lovato’s recent Eurovision Song Contest co-star Will Ferrell) express skepticism that moderation can be a successful addiction-management technique. But either way, the documentary doesn’t provide enough frame of reference for this ideological tension between treatment theories, especially for younger viewers.
In its flabbier moments, Ratner flirts with a daytime-TV luridness. I asked myself “do I really need to know all this?” plenty of times, but never more than when he sequentially compiled interviews with Lovato’s friends and family for their detailed reactions to the news of her overdose. Perhaps it could be defended as an example of how addiction seldom impacts only the addict, but it felt more like an unnecessary spectacle of pain. Lovato’s story is devastating enough, and there’s plenty of it. Dancing With the Devil should have let it stand on its own.
Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Headliners)
Premieres Tuesday, Mar. 23, on YouTube
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