It is always exciting to get a look behind the curtain. In R.J. Cutler’s (“Belushi”) new documentary, “Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry,” he lifts the veil on the pop icon, who turns out to be just another teenager. In 140 minutes, Cutler mixes concert videography, home video and backstage footage of Eilish’s life to tell the story of superstardom.
As the documentary tracks the conception and recording of her debut studio album — When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? — the viewer is let into Eilish’s inner sanctum. Now 19 years old, Billie was only 15 at the beginning of the documentary and 18 when she swept the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards, becoming the youngest ever to win in several categories.
While pop newcomers like Olivia Rodrigo and Conan Gray have drawn comparisons to Taylor Swift and Lorde, the documentary positions Eilish’s predecessor as … Justin Bieber? Starting with a call from a manager about Bieber’s interest in collaborating and ending with a congratulatory FaceTime call backstage at Eilish’s 2020 Grammy sweep — one throughline is Eilish’s intense adoration, not necessarily of Bieber’s music, but of the artist himself. Still, after meeting him at Coachella, she sings every word to “Fall” — a song that sounds utterly boring sandwiched between Eilish’s discography.
It would be easy to call Bieber and Eilish opposites. To start, Eilish writes her own music at home with her brother, Finneas, while one can picture the entourage that has likely surrounded Bieber in the studio at all points in his career. A different argument, one that the documentary seems to make, is that Billie is her generation’s Bieber. Her music is “sad,” but as evidenced by the growing hordes of adoring fans, people her age are looking for someone who sings about feeling numb or broken — accompanied by the sounds of dental drills and crosswalk buzzing, no less.
This is what makes one of the few scenes without Eilish so funny. Before the release of her debut album, Finneas explains to their parents that they need to write a hit song to please their record label. Of course, what they didn’t know is that they already had. “Bad Guy” — a song that Eilish represents with eel-like monsters in her journal — ousted the record-smashing “Old Town Road” in the summer of 2019. The higher-ups wanted something more “accessible” but didn’t realize just how “accessible” a teenager’s threats to seduce your dad can be, at least when Eilish is doing it.
Despite Eilish’s dark lyrics and frank statements on mental health, we are welcomed into a loving and incredibly supportive family home. Eilish is coddled at times and spoiled at others, like when she is given her dream car on her 16th birthday. All of this, footage of a comfortable life in a warm home, reminds the viewer that mental wellness is often independent of one’s family situation; Eilish’s mom even says, “It is a horrible time to be a teenager.” Citing the 2008 recession, climate change, racism and the opioid epidemic, she says, “Kids are depressed, it’s a scary time.” But outside factors aren’t solely to blame. Adolescence is difficult, no matter how loved and supported one might be.
Much of the film is about Eilish’s adolescence. Her woes are familiar — a boyfriend who has no time for her, a sense of self-consciousness (exacerbated by her fame) and a bad case of imposter syndrome. Throughout the film we glimpse her feelings of unworthiness; she fears letting her supporters down and doubts her own abilities. The arrogance of adolescence is on display too. Eilish seems to be under the impression that her own creative vision is unmatched; after a bad experience working with the director of one of her first music videos, she declared she would direct them herself in the future (and made good on that declaration).
This was another common thread throughout the documentary — few people seem to grasp where Billie’s power comes from. When the screen at Coachella isn’t working correctly, Eilish is adamant that it displays her planned visuals, not her. Then in Italy, she runs off stage when she tears ligaments in her leg because she’s scared she can’t give the crowd a good show without jumping around. Even though her management assures her that the audience is there to see her, not the spectacle, Billie knows it’s about something more.
Her fans want to see themselves in her and her brand — in tarantulas and uninhibited dancing. Despite claiming to “hate songwriting,” Eilish knows that she has tapped into a highly accessible weird. It’s no wonder then that the handful of 40-something-year-old, white, male executives don’t clap when Billie and Finneas finish playing new music for them.
One insufficiently explored aspect of the film was the burden of stardom. When Eilish is criticized online for being rude during a meet-and-greet, she laments that she “can’t have a bad moment.” It is clear that Eilish wasn’t in this for fame, but it can’t be said that she doesn’t enjoy it. Fame has consequences for young people: Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears and, yes, Justin Bieber, come to mind.
When a member of Eilish’s public relations team suggests she withhold her (negative) opinions on drugs and alcohol, lest she grows up to change her mind, Eilish’s mother has a naïve response. Her mother lets the viewer in on her own fears, saying, “Why are your parents with you all the time … trying to help you not to decide to destroy your life like people in your shoes have done before.” The reality is, no amount of parental oversight can save a kid from the inferno of fame. And, to be clear, no one “decides” to succumb to that sort of pressure.
Moments like that one, and when Eilish’s mother worries about the freshly-licensed pop star driving to West Hollywood alone, only reinforce the normalcy of Billie’s home life. The presence of her parents only strengthens the fact that Eilish was only 16 years old when she toured around the world.
Billie Eilish is the product of unconditional support from her family. The love she shares with her brother is heartwarming. The lesson to be learned is that teenage superstars are still adolescents with adolescent problems and that acknowledging and embracing one’s demons can unlock a supportive community that celebrates and shares your weirdness.
Daily Arts Writer Ross London can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and Senior Arts Editor Katie Beekman can be reached at email@example.com.