The World’s a Little Blurry
An intimate look at the singer-songwriter’s journey.
I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now.”
– Bob Dylan
Music and music icons are an endless source of fascination in popular culture. There is a lot of documentary material out there. There are the concert docs. There are the chasing fame and never getting there docs (Anvil). There are the evil music industry uses artists and spits them out docs. (Standing in the Shadow of Motown) Then, we have the many portraits of musicians we should know about but don’t. (The Devil and Daniel Johnston.) There are deep dives into a specific musical subculture (punk, grunge, metal). And of course, there are the ‘Rise and Fall’ docs; you know the ones. ‘Wow, these guys had it all, and now three of them are dead, and Joe can’t put together a sentence with two nouns and a verb in it. What a shame, but boy, they burned that candle at both ends, didn’t they?’
There are a few music docs that try to dig a little deeper. The best of these is ‘Don’t Look Back,’ the 1967 warts and all portrait of Bob Dylan’s first tour of Britain. This documentary is a simple fly-on-the-wall-follow-around that reveals so much more by not trying to do too much. It is intimate and compelling. It watches and makes no judgments. In so doing, it reveals the person beneath the musical prodigy. The irascible genius is just there, unvarnished and mostly unedited, in all his creative ambivalence.
Hardly Bubblegum Pop (or Life)
“The World’s a Little Blurry,” the new Billie Eilish documentary, is closer to that Dylan film than anything I have seen in quite a while. I will anticipate some objections off the top. ‘I am not a teenage girl; why the heck should I watch a two-hour-plus film about a whispery-voiced teenager who has only been famous for a New-York minute? Those intimate, confessional songs about depression, bad friends, body-image, nightmares, psychopaths, and suicidal tendencies make me want to scream, “it isn’t that bad!!!! — and if it is, you’re too young to know it. How can one make a compelling story out of this thin slice of life?”
Well, R.J. Cutler, the Oscar-nominated director of ‘The War Room’ and excellent films about John Belushi and Vogue Magazine (The September Issue), saw a story there and told it brilliantly. (A critic’s score of 97 percent on Rotten tomatoes.) And you do not have to be a fan to find this film entertaining. Cutler is a member of the fly-on-the-wall school. Eilish and her family gave Cutler and his cameras unrestricted access to daily life in the O’Connell’s modest two-bedroom home in L.A. His camera watches while Billie and her equally-talented brother make the songs that would break Spotify-streaming records and win the pair 11 Grammys. He then hitches a ride on the Eilish crazy train as the young teenager becomes a pop supernova with the release of ‘When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?’ Cutler combines this footage with video shot by Billie’s mother. (A typical Gen Z parent family, there is video of Eilish going back to the pablum years.)
There are no talking heads here; there is no narrator. Instead, small vignettes reveal. It is well known that Billie and Finneas created these songs in his bedroom using very modest tech. But no one in the film tells you this. Instead, we see several record label executives cramming themselves into Finneas O’Connell’s tiny bedroom to preview a few rough-cut tracks. Billie is warbling lyrics to a song called ‘Strange Addiction.’ She is reading them from her phone as her brother plunks on his computer keyboard. You can feel the bewilderment of these thirty-plussers as they smile politely, express solidarity, and wonder to themselves, “what the hell is going on? Why aren’t we dragging these kids into a studio where we can layer thirty-five violins and six flutes on top of these incredibly raw, stripped-down songs?”
It is fascinating to witness the preliminary acts of creation that would lead to the album. These songs would tap into the Gen Z zeitgeist like nothing else and create an earthquake of empathetic response among young fans that we haven’t seen since Beatlemania. Watching some of these fans weep uncontrollably in Eilish’s arms while whispering that she saved their lives makes this Boomer wonder what in the world is going on with this particular generation. Where does this deep well of angst come from? Answers are touched on here without any pontification by somber overdubbers. Maggie O’Connell (Billie’s mother) simply says Gen Z’s are depressed. They have grown up experiencing financial stress among their parents post the 2008 recession, worries about climate degradation, racial tension, and the fractious idiocy of American politics as it has worsened throughout their short lifetimes. And of course, underlying everything else, the rise of social media — the greatest insecurity engine ever produced.
Art, Family and Fame
Eilish is asked several different times why her music resonates with fans the way it does. Sometimes you can just feel the subtext under the polite queries, often posed by people twenty-years older. “You and your fans are too young to be this sad; come on, get happy!” There is an implicit condescension here that irritates me to no end. Does one have to look like Keith Richards to have life-lived credibility? Eilish responds simply (and I paraphrase and conjoin different sections here),
“I make art out of the way I feel, and I often don’t feel very good. I used to cut myself. My love of dance was cut short when my growth plate separated from the attached muscles. I had an obsessive passion for Justin Bieber that almost caused my mother to put me in therapy. I have seriously considered killing myself. I fight depression. I have synesthesia and Tourettes and am as anxious as any girl my age about my body-image and how I will be perceived on social media. The only serious boyfriend I have had was a dysfunctional disaster, and the only reason I am alive is the extraordinary loving devotion of my family. I’m seventeen, and my body is breaking down because of the way I perform. There are times when I can barely walk onto the stage. I tore ankle ligaments in Milan and fell in front of 60,000 people five seconds into my opening number. My fans feel me, and I feel them. They are not fans at all; they are part of me.”
I am so far from being a Gen Zedder that I can barely see them over the horizon, but I’m with Billie on this big time. The Girl is making art the only way that anyone can make art by distilling the truth of their own experience and, in so doing, transcending and universalizing it. Would these same commentators have told William Blake to whistle a merry tune?
As to the family that has, in her own words, kept her alive, they are another great thing about this documentary. What we see without any editorial comment whatsoever is an unusual family trying to build a cocoon of normalcy around a hyper-creative and troubled teenager, who is about to become, over the course of the year that Cutler followed her, the most famous teenager on the planet. The task is too much for even the most dedicated parents and the most supportive of brothers. What is remarkable is watching them try and succeed so much better than one has any right to expect. Some of the credit for this goes to Eilish herself, who comes across as both tough-minded and endearingly open to the world around her. This is a girl who has been loved and supported and encouraged from the get-go, perhaps the main reason one does not see an Amy Winehouse trajectory here. Her parents come across as unconventional, charmingly bohemian, and artistic in their own right. One of the many quietly evocative domestic scenes is Billie’s father giving the universal be careful and don’t be stupid sermon to Billie as she is about to go off on her first solo drive in her new car. (She gives her Dad that bland, slightly amused stare familiar to all parents everywhere.)
Adolescent to Powerhouse
“Blurry’ is not the first documentary to deal with the perils of a rapid ascent to super-stardom. But it is the first such created by an award-winning filmmaker that deals with fame in the social media age. Paul McCartney was famous, Bono was famous, Kurt Cobain was famous, but none of these icons had 77-million Instagram followers and 40-million YouTube subscribers ready to pounce on everything they said and did and revealed. When Eilish posted a picture of herself and her brothers holding armloads of Grammys, she received over 100,000 Instagram comments in 24 hours, some of them very cutting and dismissive. She eventually took the picture down. I wish The World’s a Little Blurry had taken a deeper dive into this subject (budding sociologists should be having a field-day with social media comment threads), but that would have required some of those somber talking heads, and he did not go there. (Also left unexplored is how web-streamed popular songs instantly become collective art. Billie and Finneas composed the new Bond Movie theme in some quiet moments on their tour bus. There must be 40 versions of ‘No Time to Die’‘ on the web ranging from metal to acapella.)
Cutler depicts Eilish’s entire odyssey without narrative interjection — the fly stays on the wall. The vignettes tell the story. One such is a scene of Eilish playfully lifting the flap of a tent she is in with her sneaker. Although nothing but her shoe is visible, fans fifty meters away behind a chain-link fence start to scream. Another such tableaux is video of Katy Perry coming backstage before Billie’s epic and highly stressful Coachella performance. Perry offers generous support as someone whose been down that road while her boyfriend gushes all over Billie. The boyfriend is Orlando Bloom — Eilish has no idea who he is. The Coachella footage is a highlight of the film. That weekend she finally came face-to-face with her childhood idol, Justin Bieber. It says a great deal about who she is that Billie immediately reverted to adoring fan mode, rushed into his arms, and started to cry — about as un-diva like an interaction as one could ever hope to see.
Eilish gave Cutler the final cut on the footage, and there was no editorial interference from her Label. There is beautifully shot, and recorded concert footage sprinkled throughout, a visual and listening treat for fans like me. But you do not have to whistle Eilish tunes in the shower every morning to find this a compelling watch. You just need to love a good story, skillfully told. Several stories actually – the rise to fame of an improbably young and powerfully original musician, a story about musical collaboration between deeply empathetic siblings making art in paradigm-shattering ways, and a coming of age story about a generational talent who let the existential dark out through her songs so that she could let some light in, something Jim and Kurt and Amy never could do. It is the story of reciprocal, cathartic love between an artist and a generation – a connection that transcends the conventional fan/famous person dynamic. It is neither a tragedy nor a triumph, and there is no neat conclusion here — just a film giving witness to a young person coming fully into her power and her sense of self, breaking on through to the other side.
I give this film 3.5 stars out of 4.