Director: Lana Wilson
Streaming on: Netflix
Even singers have a hard time finding their voice. For singer-songwriter Taylor Swift, 2016 was particularly rough. Following a much-publicized dispute with rapper Kanye West, the public turned on her overnight, headlines were cruel and #TaylorSwiftIsOverParty was the top trend worldwide. She took a year off from the spotlight and eventually made a comeback with her album Reputation. Documentary Miss Americana on Netflix splices together home videos, news reports and fresh footage to detail how Swift not only survived, but thrived and got her groove back.
Its title, though never alluded to, is a reference to one of Swift's most politically charged songs. On the surface, the tune details a highschool relationship but look closer at the lyrics and 'she's a bad, bad girl' becomes Hillary Clinton being called a nasty woman, painting the town blue becomes turning up to vote for the Democratic Party and 'boys will be boys' takes aim at Trump's treatment of women.
Unlike the song, however, the Swift of the documentary is done couching her opinions in thinly veiled metaphors. "She's just Trump in a wig," she says of Marsha Blackburn, outlining the conservative Senate candidate's anti-LGBTQ stance and opposition to an act that would protect women from violence and stalking. There's a glimpse into what the Swift household was like moments before she put up the Instagram post that spurred record voter registration:
A public figure's life is rarely their own and to hear Swift tell it, hers became driven by an addiction to approval. "Those pats on the head were all I lived for," she says, by way of explaining why she chose silence for so long. There's plenty of explaining and introspecting as she talks about how unflattering paparazzi photos led to an eating disorder spiral and Kanye West's interruption of her VMA speech (still excruciating to watch 10 years later) took her down dark psychological paths. Not much is off limits, and as the cameras trail her into planes, cars, dressing rooms, elevators and backstage, rawer moments of the documetary feature her discussing her sexual assault trial and mother's battle with cancer.
Miss Americana is also compelling portrait of just how lonely it is at the top. Juxtaposed against montages of shrieking fans and praise from talk show hosts is the realization she doesn't have a partner she can celebrate her second Album of the Year Grammy win with. 'Oh my God man, I'm just…so happy' she tells director Lana Wilson on the drive home from her sold-out Reputation concert, only to have the camera follow her into an empty hotel room moments later. When she hears her album Reputation hasn't been nominated for any of the major Grammy categories, she's on a couch at home, only a cat for company.
Swift channels this disappointment into her writing and the greatest joy of this documentary is watching her creative process unfold. The singer is one of this generation's best songwriters, something she acknowledges. "Everybody in music has their own sort of niche speciality thing that they do…and my storytelling is what it is for me," she says. Watching her work makes it look effortless. She and collaborator Jack Antonoff ad lib the entire bridge of Getaway Car during a recording session. The complete concept for the ME! video springs from her brain on the spot while talking to Panic! At The Disco frontman Brendon Urie. Home video footage of Swift, age 13, playing the guitar and belting out a song she wrote the previous day, assures fans that this has always been the case.
Despite her newfound assertiveness, Swift still struggles with her self image. "I have a really slappable face," she says, while watching footage of her ME! video. Early on, she holds up an old diary and talks about a childhood phase during which she wrote with a glass quill and an ink jet. She scrunches up her face as if to say: Can you believe it?
The documentary is bookended by Swift sifting through these diaries. She began by discussing her need to be perceived as good, but ends the documentary by saying simply, "I wanna still have a sharp pen, a thin skin and an open heart." It's fitting that the singer, who released an album called Speak Now in 2010, has finally found her time to do so.