It would be dishonest to say that my decision to go to Sundance wasn’t at least mildly (okay, heavily) influenced by the fact that superstar Taylor Swift’s documentary, “Miss Americana,” would be screened at the festival before its Jan. 31 Netflix release. As the kickoff to the film festival, “Miss Americana” was one of the hottest tickets in Park City; its premiere saw lines wrapping around the block in the cold Utah winter, hundreds of people waiting for the chance to catch a glimpse of Swift and/or her movie. Many were fans, but as an introduction to the screening told us, you don’t have to be a fan of Swift to enjoy this movie. And, if you’re not a fan, this film is certain to make you one. This sentiment could not have rung more true — even before the lights came on, the theater was buzzing with admiration and excitement for this deeply personal and moving peek into the life of such a polarizing musician.
“Miss Americana” opens on Swift playing the piano in her New York City apartment while her kitten, Benjamin, strolls across the keys. As the camera follows the adorable blue-eyed feline, Swift’s voice comes in, setting the stage for what evidently becomes the theme of the documentary.
“My entire moral code is a need to be thought of as ‘good,’” she says while perched on a city-facing window sill. As a montage of home movies and early performances plays, Swift describes her desperate need for approval, how she used to need applause and validation to feel good about herself. All she ever tried to be was the polite girl who smiled and made it easy to sell records, and it kept working. That is, of course, until it didn’t.
The documentary takes a turn with the infamous 2009 incident, when Kanye West interrupted a teenage Taylor Swift onstage at the VMAs. Swift says that at the time she didn’t know everyone in the crowd was booing Kanye. She thought the arena was booing her, piercing her desperately needed veil of approval and shaping the way she viewed her life from then on.
In a post-screening Q&A, documentary director Lana Wilson revealed that she and Swift had specifically talked about making sure the film didn’t come off as propaganda or marketing. This explains how deeply and surprisingly personal the documentary gets. Viewers see Swift talking about everything from her history with eating disorders to her mother’s growing cancer to the crushing loneliness of stardom. These moments, woven between scenes of a sparkling, smiling Swift on stage at her various tours, take what could’ve been just another pop star documentary and elevate it to a level rarely achieved by the genre.
The most touching and talked about scene of the film comes when Swift decides she wants to come out in support of Phil Bredeson, the Tennessee Democrat who ran against Marcia Blackburn, a woman who Swift describes as “Trump in a wig,” in the 2018 midterm election. In a room with her mother, father and three men from her management team, Swift holds back tears describing what she feels are unforgivable views held by Blackburn. As her father and management beg her not speak out, she breaks down over not publicly coming out against Trump in 2016, finally proclaiming that this is just “something I have to do.”
There is some valid criticism to be made here. Swift’s activism is one of comfort, done with a glass of wine in an expensive home. But the framing of her political coming-out within the theme of the documentary squashes these concerns. Swift is less of a couch activist with a savior complex and more of a powerful woman finally breaking out of the ties that she has been bound by for fifteen years. From the beginning of the doc to the end, we see Swift no longer care about approval, applause and awards, but about what she wants and how she wants to do it.
Within the film are plenty more moments and scenes that warrant their own article, but with a fast-approaching release date, such details are not necessary. The whispers heard while walking out of the film were of varied praise — from super fans crying over details they’ve always wanted, to old men who couldn’t name three Swift songs praising the rawness and charm of the flick. With its humor and heartbreak, “Miss Americana” is the story of a normal, outcasted teenage girl who just so happened to get famous.
—Samantha Della Fara, Daily Arts Writer
To quote my mom: “Taylor Swift is a smart girl.”
And no, not in that calculated, strategic way that, as Swift herself explains, is negatively associated with women, but rather in a genuinely intelligent and informed way that proves she knows what she’s doing as a businesswoman, citizen, role model and human.
Nothing demonstrates her intelligence more than Swift’s recently released Netflix documentary “Miss Americana.” Director Lana Wilson (“The Departure”) uses the documentary as an opportunity to peel back the layers of Taylor Swift to see what she is really like beyond her catchy songs and exhilarating concerts; Swift reclaims the narrative of her life story in this documentary. In some incredibly touching scenes we see her interact with her family, and we get peeks into her studio where she and her collaborators work on the lyrical and musical processes behind her songs.
“Miss Americana” is full of intense moments, like her decision to come out about her political beliefs and her mother’s cancer struggles, but those are evenly dispersed with happy moments too. Wilson carefully manages a then timeline and a now timeline, with the then moments being Swift’s struggles and the now moments being her life now, where she is happier than she has been in a long time and more connected with what really matters to her.
Wilson follows the timeline of Swift’s 13-year career: She inserts clips of Swift performing the national anthem as a child, the launch of her career with her song “Tim McGraw,” her numerous awards beginning with the album Fearless and ending with pop music sensation 1989, and her struggle to be “a good girl.” But then we see something different: the sadness that once lurked deep beyond Swift’s surface, sadness that was never apparent on her face or in her speeches. We see how things like the #TaylorSwiftIsOverParty affected her, how Kanye West’s song “Famous” hurt her, how paparazzi photos and media remarks led to an eating disorder and how her sexual assault case left her paranoid and eager to change how women are treated.
Following those events, it makes sense that Swift would want to change herself, not just through her music with the release of reputation, but also personally and publicly as a political spokesperson. In one of the most hard-hitting scenes of the documentary, Swift fights against her management team and her father when she declares she wants to speak out during the 2018 midterm elections. She says she wants people to understand why Marsha Blackburn should not be in power, citing Blackburn’s lack of support for the Violence Against Women Act and Blackburn’s homophobic beliefs. Everyone begs her not to make such a risky decision, but Swift says she has to “be on the right side of history,” or at least try. And she does. She risks her career, but more importantly her safety, to try to make a difference. It may not have turned out the way she hoped, but we saw her make an effort, which is more than many entertainers do.
We also see the effect of the midterm election on Swift’s music. Last year she came out with the song “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince,” which is saturated with political metaphors and is also the song for which the documentary is named, but with this film she also releases clips of her creating a new song “Only the Young,” which was released with the documentary. The song, written for and about the youth affected by Trump and other Republicans’ detrimental political decisions , references school shootings among other horrific events. But, as Swift sings, “only one thing can save us / only the young.” Backed by children’s voices, the song emphasizes what Swift explains in her documentary: the need to take part in politics and create change in the world, through music, politics or otherwise.
— Sabriya Imami, Daily Arts Writer