California Gov. Gavin Newsom had yet to issue a statewide stay-at-home order on March 16, 2020, but quarantine was in the air and Charli XCX was getting antsy.
Just before 3 p.m. in Los Angeles, Charli tweeted her “self quarantine diary entry 2,” in which she shared her desire to make something new with her fans, the “Angels.” Fast forward to April 4 and 5, when she tweeted a few teasers, leading up to the big announcement on April 6, only three weeks into the pandemic: “I AM MAKING A NEW ALBUM. RELEASE DATE MAY 15TH.”
“I’ve never made an album in five weeks before,” Charli shared in a panel discussion following the premiere of her self-produced documentary “Alone Together” at SXSW Online. “But I definitely like to work fast.” In a whirlwind of activity, Charli managed to record the 11 tracks on how i’m feeling now, shoot a number of music videos and film most of a documentary — all while baring her creative process on Twitter for the world to see.
As described by The Michigan Daily, the album is “a spectrum of emotional discord that captures the highs and lows of love in quarantine.” Charli continues to explore the multivariate world of hyperpop under the auspices of producer A.G. Cook, who appears in the film only via video chat. Cook supplied Charli with the equipment to record the album from her bedroom, and the rest is brassy, bright, bubblegum bass for the quarantine era with nightclub energy (and aspirations).
“Alone Together” is more than a how i’m feeling now making-of film, but it absolutely feels like a complement to the music. If the album is the product of quarantine-inspired self-reflection and emotional openness, the film is a glimpse into the circumstances and environment that fostered this musical vulnerability. The documentary is highly personal, quilted together from moments of self-reflection and time with her boyfriend captured by Charli and her housemates on camcorders and cellphones.
A year into quarantine, the viewer is accustomed to this sort of window into the life of another: shaky, grainy and close-cropped. The resulting images are comfortable and familiar; we have grown over the past year to learn about each other through the bedroom walls behind our floating heads on Zoom. “Alone Together” embraces this uniquely 2020 mode of interaction.
Beyond home video and Zoom recordings, the film is layered with digital interfaces. The integration of social media posts and group chat messages capture the real way that the Angels interacted with Charli as she made the album. Recordings of Charli’s Instagram live streams — in which she demos songs and recruits help from her fans in writing lyrics — make this documentary not only about the album or Charli’s life in quarantine, but about the way her fans experienced this process.
A few Angels are featured throughout the documentary. In the post-screening panel, directors Bradley and Pablo (who primarily direct music videos like “Watermelon Sugar” and “Rodeo”) recalled spending “eight hours a day on Zoom” with fans. The film includes many clips of these interviews, alongside self-recorded video of fans’ lives. Pablo said the film has “more depth and richness” than he had expected, in large part due to fan participation. The viewer is given a taste of the relationship between Charli and her fans, as the Angels share what Charli’s music means to them.
Bradley and Pablo first met Charli in 2016 and became aware of her album project when she DJed Club Quarantine in April. Club Quarantine, launched by DJ D-Nice in March of last year, is what Charli calls a “virtual second home” and safe space for LGBTQ+ and BIPOC individuals feeling the stress of isolation. The film culminates in a Club Quarantine album launch party, where Charli joins the fans we’ve followed throughout the film (along with hundreds of others) to celebrate music and find joy. Benny Drama, who moderated the post-screening discussion, shared an observation that I also noticed while watching the film: Bradley and Pablo’s frenetic editing of this Zoom dance party almost recreated the euphoric feeling of being in a club, unencumbered and thriving among the heat of the crowd.
The film is far from all fun and dancing, though. Even more intimate than Billie Eilish’s vulnerability captured by R.J. Cutler in “Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry,” Charli’s homemade video offers an unmoderated emotional openness. She puts words to her anxiety, sharing her self-doubt and self-consciousness. This provides context for the emotional lyrics on how i’m feeling now, while closing the chasm between a pop star and her fans, many of whom struggle with the same intrusive thoughts.
Like “The World’s a Little Blurry,” “Alone Together” is part of what I hope will be a growing trend of documentaries that normalize superstar vulnerability. For far too long, music biopics have glorified and romanticized mental illness and substance abuse, suggesting that fame is an exclusive ticket to a dark, dangerous and exciting world. But young artists aren’t interested in being symbols of twisted fame.
Documentaries like “Alone Together” might just be the key to making the 27 Club a thing of the past by divorcing mental illness from the mystique of fame. Mental illness has long been a creative source and a way for fans to identify with an artist; it’s about time that the connection between fame and mental illness become a conversation.
“Alone Together” is a music documentary for the COVID-19 era, capturing the new digital normal from the perspective of the digitally native Generation Z. Bradley and Pablo’s direction, which they described as letting “the story speak for itself,” mimics the hyperpop energy of Charli’s music and seamlessly incorporates the Angels’ experience with Charli’s process.
Most importantly, “Alone Together” starts a conversation about the compulsion to create under stress and continues a conversation about celebrity vulnerability. Charli’s pride in how i’m feeling now reminds us to be proud of our achievements and find spaces to celebrate them with others.
Daily Arts Writer Ross London can be reached at email@example.com.