Director: RJ Cutler
Cinematography: Jenna Rosher
Edited by: Greg Finton, Lindsay Utz
Streaming on: Apple TV+
‘I love you.’
These are the words perhaps most often uttered in The World’s a Little Blurry, the new Apple TV+ documentary about Billie Eilish. Eilish is surrounded by love, from her brother and closest collaborator Finneas, from her endlessly supportive parents Maggie and Patrick, from her friends, from her number one idol Justin Bieber (more on him later), and from her emotional fans. And while she is fortified and buoyed by this love, while she recognises and reciprocates it, she is also a deeply vulnerable teen.
And in this film, she is surprisingly and refreshingly so. Documentaries about well-known celebrities are usually made after the fact, so to speak, and therefore reflect on their vulnerabilities and inhibitions in the past tense. Asif Kapadia’s Amy was made after Amy Winehouse died; in Miss Americana, Taylor Swift comments on her struggles with eating disorders now that she has overcome them (somewhat). But with this documentary, director RJ Cutler films Eilish in the thick of her extraordinary rise to fame, which means we also see the parallel struggles in real time.
Eilish’s music is deliberately dark and this is what sets her apart from the candy-coloured pop of her contemporaries. At one point, just before her debut album is completed, we see her arguing with her family about having to include one or two more ‘accessible’ or ‘conventional’ songs; she doesn’t get why she should do this, why she should go against the very thing she’s been acclaimed for. Later, she’ll struggle with a failing relationship as well as with repeated physical injury. It’s often easy to forget that being a pop star is a very physical job, with tours and performances; Eilish hurts her legs, sprains her ankle, throws her neck out. She tells the crowd, ‘I’m not supposed to jump, but I’m a dumbass, so I will.’ I don’t remember the last time we saw a celebrity’s foot being massaged and stretched by a physiotherapist.
And she also has Tourette’s. Occasionally, she’ll have a tic attack, and these are very casually filmed and shown. There is no discussion of it, it’s simply a part of who she is. It’s the physical resilience of the artist, of the performer, that keeps them going. And Eilish, who turned eighteen over the course of the filming, already knows that she must have that resilience.
But after all, she’s had to learn to be resilient because it’s not like she had an easy childhood. She candidly declares, ‘I didn’t think I’d make it to this age.’ She would harm herself as a young teen and she would always have Band-Aids on her wrists. Her notebooks are filled with morose words and images to represent her thoughts; there are songs she’s written about wanting to cut herself. On her bedroom wall, she’s written the words ‘No matter what happens, I will always love’, then crossed out ‘always love’ and written ‘be broken’.
So what did get her to this age? Her music, of course. And her family. But also her love for Justin Bieber. Bieber and his music were in some ways the guiding lights of Eilish’s preteen and teen years. She remembers sobbing into a pillow because she was worried when she grew up and had a boyfriend, she wouldn’t love him as much as she loved Bieber. Her mother remembers driving this lovesick child around, wondering whether she should take her to therapy to help her get over her Bieber fever. So when she eventually meets Bieber, at one of her concerts, she can barely look him in the face. She says, ‘Justin Bieber could ask me to kill my dog and I would.’ (This is followed by a shot of the dog throwing her a reproachful look.) She dissolves into tears afterwards. It’s an interesting position for Eilish to be in, because this is usually the effect she has on people, fans who come up to her and tearfully exclaim that her music saved their lives. And here she’s met the man whose music saved hers. Eilish is aware of the beautiful full-circle nature of this encounter, but is simultaneously overwhelmed by it.
Cutler’s film is content to observe Eilish and her family. There aren’t all that many narrations to the camera, there are no name cards introducing major people in her life. As far as I could see, a close friend of hers who appears frequently went unnamed through the whole film. (If there is a quibble with this film, it’s that Eilish’s friends remain in the background, even though she’s very attached to them.) The camera is just there, in the room with Eilish, often handheld, watching everyone: we see her dad comb his moustache once. There’s no overt construction of images or scenes; people are rarely framed formally, but rather as they’re going about their lives. The film often slips into footage captured by the family on their phones or personal cameras.
And this contributes to the homespun vibe that Eilish strives hard to maintain, emphasising how she and her brother continue to make music in his bedroom, without recourse to fancy equipment or studios. Their way to judge the music they make – the lyrics, the melody, the harmony, a hook, anything – is to decide whether it’s ‘cool’. If they don’t like something, it’s ‘not cool enough’. Their songwriting/jam sessions, despite Eilish’s assertion that she hates writing, seem to function as therapy for the two of them. They’re a time when they can shut out the world, the pressure of labels and having to write a ‘hit’, and just focus on finding their coolth.
We see Eilish in the process of making peace with the idea that the mistakes she makes will now be very public. She laments that as a public figure she is not allowed even one moment of weakness, of not being on her best behaviour. This is the usual conflict for the newly successful artist, but it’s her youthful defiant anger that makes the realisation resonate.
The other literally resonant part of the film is Eilish’s music, which runs through the film, not only when she’s performing at concerts or writing songs, but also underlining scenes from her life. The movie opens and closes with ‘Ocean Eyes’, the song that first got the internet’s attention in 2015. When she has a break-up, it’s juxtaposed with her performance of ‘Wish You Were Gay’, whose lyrics go, ‘I just wanna make you feel OK, but all you do is look the other way’. This is a music documentary but also, in some senses, a musical: music is its driving force.
When Eilish sings, her audiences dissolve into tears. Sometimes, she gets choked up herself. Her songs might mean a lot to the fans (‘they’re not my fans,’ she says, ‘they’re, like, a part of me’), but they mean the most to her. They’re what keep her going. They’re what she loves the most. It’s a horrible time to be a teenager, as her mother says, but it’s music and love that help her survive her blurry world.