Polygon’s entertainment team is on the ground at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, bringing you first looks at what are sure to be some of the year’s best blockbuster-alternative offerings. Here’s what you need to know before these indie films make their way to theaters, streaming services, and the cinematic zeitgeist.
Logline: In Miss Americana, Taylor Swift recounts the story of Taylor Swift, who struggled to define “Taylor Swift” until personal trauma and political battles pushed Young Taylor Swift to become the Taylor Swift we know today.
Longerline: Netflix’s new music documentary is like the complete, annotated TayTay box set come to life. Spanning her early years as a 13-year-old songwriting prodigy to her domination of the country circuit and the last decade of international pop stardom, the documentary hits every notable Wiki moment for the the musician to reflect upon. The film opens with Swift flipping through the pages of her old diaries — she says she used to jot down her thoughts with a quill and ink! — and before too long, her trip down memory lane swerves into self-interrogation. “My entire moral compass then and now is a need to be seen as good.”
Instead of plowing through chronology, Miss Americana builds the movie out of clustered moments of hardship. Swift leads viewers inside her living room to hear the news that Reputation didn’t make the cut at the 2018 Grammys (“That’s fine; I need to make a better record”). We relive the infamous Kanye VMAs moment and her transformation into a “hated” celebrity (“I’m only here because I worked hard and I was nice to people”). She grapples with social media harassment, body-image anxiety, the turmoil of her sexual assault lawsuit against DJ David Mueller, and political pressure over the 2018 midterm elections, and finds solace in the studio writing with guys like Joel Little and Jack Antonoff. This era of Taylor Swift will never have its own MTV documentary series, so the Netflix movie does the job of condensing every theoretical episode into one 86-minute portrait.
The quote that says it all: “You get to the mountaintop and you think, ‘Oh my god, that’s all you wanted?’”
What’s it trying to do? Directed by Lana Wilson, whose phenomenal documentary After Tiller examined third-trimester abortions, is an empathetic ear for Swift’s own Grand Taylor Swift Theory. Miss Americana compiles evidence to remind young fans that even someone as famous and influential as the woman who roared through 1989 (still amazing, by the way!) is a human being who can be repressed by systematic misogyny. Swift, a masterful storyteller who processes her most personal feelings into consumable, crank-up-the-stereo anthems, delivers the message through lyric-ready remarks. “I want to wear pink and tell you what I think about politics,” she at one point declares to Wilson. “I don’t think they cancel each other out.”
Miss Americana is also a behind-the-scenes look at the making of her biggest records. It’s also a political documentary about a celebrity looking to wield her influence at a pressurized moment. It’s also a concert film, with highlights from the Fearless, Red, 1989 and Reputation tours. It’s the Taylor Swift brand on screen, with a message that girls don’t have to apologize for being the shit.
Does it get there? Like much of Swift’s music, Miss Americana is confessional, but rarely raw. Even when she’s chowing on a burrito and batting melodies around with her collaborators, she’s performing for camera, delivering dialogue on the heightened wavelength of something like Keeping Up With the Kardashians. That doesn’t make it less watchable — Swift is a prime candidate for her own reality show — but it’s contrived, and the resistance to fully letting go (or perhaps the unconscious inability to do so) is in conflict with what the star is preaching. The tone flies in a publicist-approved Vogue cover story, but not a documentary that purports to poke holes in media narratives.
Swift’s “on” persona coupled with a flyby approach to the dark side of fame makes more distressing behind-the-scenes moments feel superficial. Early on, the musician echoes many a burnt-out YouTube star as she describes the crippling pressure of satisfying fans with constant new music. Being the subject of others’ parasocial relationships can be a struggle, but Swift talks about the hardship of Hollywood like she’s in a bubble. “Do you care if the internet doesn’t like you?” she asks as a montage of hate tweets zips across the screen. This is not just a Taylor problem, though it is in the Taylor Swift documentary.
More unsettling is a scene in which the star ducks into an SUV to escape a horde of fans camped out by her apartment. These days, Swift does everything in her power not to look at pictures of herself, as they might trigger an instinct to starve herself. There was a time when she was too thin, working out nonstop but also not eating, trying to perfect her body for everyone looking. “There’s always some standard of beauty that you’re not meeting,” she says. To overcome the eating disorder, Swift simply had to snap out of it by giving herself a mantra (“we don’t do that anymore, Taylor”), which she samples for Wilson in the car. If there was more to the recovery, or a greater struggle to combat the all-too-common issue, it’s not really addressed. As with most things examined in the world of Taylor, there’s little explanation of how one fights these battles, but lots of resolution and results.
Swift comes alive when she eventually awakens to the idea of being a political voice. Though criticism of her silence may have poked or cajoled her into picking a side, the star’s decision to speak out about the 2018 U.S. Senate election in Tennessee is depicted as a moment of overflowing rage, in large part due to being rattled by the Mueller groping incident and lawsuit. Swift goes on several tears against Republican Marsha Blackburn’s conservative political values (“she’s Trump in a wig”), and locks horns with her publicity team and her own father on whether to drop a tweet in hopes of swaying the election. Even if it’s punchy — when someone notes that the president could come after her for getting political, she responds, “Fuck that” — the passion feels uncompromised. Shots of her banging out protest tunes at the piano after Blackburn’s win, roaring with talent and identity and rage, is the promised version of Taylor. Dancing with her boyfriend in a twilight-soaked field while saying she finally wanted a “private relationship” is ... not. We get all the versions of Swift in Miss Americana.
What does that get us? If Beyoncé gets a documentary, and Lady Gaga gets a documentary, Taylor Swift should probably get a documentary. Though Miss Americana is a mess of messaging, certain hammer swings should resonate with the musician’s core fan base, which is destined to watch the film. It can’t hurt to hear a genuine mega-celebrity say, “I have to deprogram the misogyny in my brain.”
The most meme-able moment: “Did Bob Hope do it? Did Bing Crosby do it?” —Taylor Swift’s dad’s actual argument against Taylor Swift tweeting about politics.
When can we see it? Netflix will release Miss Americana on Friday, Jan. 31.