A disclaimer for Taylor Swift fans who have stumbled upon this review: I am agnostic on Taylor Swift. I’m not for her or against her. I’m passingly familiar with her music, but beyond that I didn’t know much about her origins, her career, or her public persona. If you’re like me in this regard, you’ll still find Lana Wilson‘s documentary Miss Americana a captivating watch as it uses Swift’s story to explore a pop icon’s political awakening and her complicated relationship with fame. There’s nothing here to make new Swift fans or change the opinions of her haters, but that’s kind of the point of the documentary: to disregard the audience in favor of examining the relationship between a female celebrity and her followers, and how fame can prove to be a personal prison until you figure out how to take control of your narrative even it means losing popularity.
The documentary begins with Swift doing some songwriting with her cat also playing the keys (her cat almost steals the show) before shifting into Swift learning she received no major Grammy nominations for her 2018 album Reputation. This turn provides the frame for the whole movie, which is the story of a woman who based her entire career on making strangers happy having to learn what will make her happy even if it may upset some fans. Wilson then charts Swift’s meteoric rise with how fame and her public persona kept forcing her into dark places. Swift knows that her brand is “the nice girl”, and that nice girls don’t make waves or make people feel uncomfortable. And yet even playing the nice girl, her grasp on popularity remained tenuous as she becomes embroiled in media controversies over her dating life, her authenticity, and her demeanor. Seemingly faced with a no-win situation, Swift fights to wrest back control by examining what’s truly important to her.
What’s surprising about Miss Americana is how little of the documentary is about her music. Sure, there’s plenty of behind-the-scenes footage of Swift working on her songs and being on stage, but the documentary isn’t interested in engaging with a critical assessment of her pop songs or why Swift has succeeded where other singer-songwriters have failed, which is fine. I’m not particularly interested in a movie that’s trying to convince its audience why Taylor Swift’s music is good because it’s clear that Swift feels in her zone when she’s just working. For Swift and for Miss Americana, the drama is in Swift wrestling with her public persona and what it means to be a country-pop star who’s been famous since she was a teenager.
The documentary gives Swift the floor to say her peace on conversations about her weight, her love life, and what her public demands. What makes Swift a captivating central figure is that she’s so articulate and self-aware of her status as a public figure, and yet that awareness turned out to be a double-edged sword. Swift if not some record label product who can’t think for herself. The problem, as Swift knows, is that part of her appeal is being an apolitical “nice girl”, and any authenticity has to be filtered through the toxic mores of what our society demands from women in the public sphere. She knows that you don’t rise through the ranks of country music by telling people what they don’t want to hear, but what happens when you want to talk about more than breakup songs?
Miss Americana becomes electric in its final act as Swift finally reaches a political awakening. While I’m not going to lie and say I’m indifferent towards Swift sharing political views similar to my own (pro-gay rights, pro-renewing the Violence Against Women Act), even if they weren’t, it’s refreshing to see Swift trying to thread the needle of reinvention while voicing political opinions that will undoubtedly lose her fans who don’t agree with her beliefs. The film notes how the Dixie Chicks were received when they spoke out against George W. Bush in 2003 and the blowback they endured from country fans. Swift is far more careful in crafting her message, but she’s willing to say it nonetheless.
Swift’s awareness of her public persona and how she’s perceived gives Miss Americana a low-hum of image management, which in turn makes you question the authenticity of Swift. But the second you start walking down the road of “Is Swift authentic or not?” you’ve hit a dead-end because it does not matter. Some may argue that Swift’s perceived authenticity is essential to her career and her art, but I’d counter (to borrow a line from Miller’s Crossing) nobody knows anybody, not that well. To make a judgment on whether someone you’ll never meet is “authentic” or not is a fool’s errand, and I was bewildered by the headlines that were more concerned with Swift’s persona than her music.
Detractors may point out that Miss Americana is Swift’s way of having her cake and eating it too. She gets to control her narrative in a favorable documentary that upholds her persona as an introspective artist, but swats down anyone who interrogates that persona. For someone like me who has no investment in that persona one way or the other, I find the documentary refreshing as a larger take on the perils of female fame. Is the politically-woke Taylor Swift of Miss Americana just another “reinvention” to keep her career alive? Perhaps, but I have no reason to not take Swift at her word because I, and I assume everyone reading this, are strangers to her. We’re not her family. We’re not her friends. At most, we can be fans, and for most of her career, Swift determined that the approval of those fans, those strangers, was paramount. That was a prison, and it’s encouraging to see Swift break free.
Miss Americana is now streaming on Netflix. For more of our Sundance 2020 coverage, click here.