Pop stardom has changed intensely because of social media. The barrier between the celebrity and their fandom has been torn down through replies and DMs. (Some fans of ’90s pop icon Britney Spears even imagine she’s sending coded messages through Instagram.) A new generation of musical talent was birthed through YouTube (Justice Bieber) and SoundCloud, including American singer/songwriter Billie Eilish, who was only 18 when she won armloads of Grammys for her debut studio album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? Her meteoric rise has been tracked by how her follower counts ballooned. Now, the documentary Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry offers her fans a long, intimate look at life behind the scenes of the album’s making, the tour, and all that followed, for better and worse.
Director R.J. Cutler (who directed last year’s Belushi) ushers audiences into her family home, where Eilish wrote and recorded her album in collaboration with her brother, musician/producer Finneas. Those unfamiliar with her story might suspect a sprawling California mansion, but the siblings are hunkered down in a cramped bedroom. This circumstance is made more ridiculous when record execs visit, lined up like sardines along a twin bed and across a cluttered bureau. In other scenes of cozy domesticity, their mother, Maggie Baird, clucks over Eilish for cursing and makes coffee while pontificating on the role of parents in keeping a teen idol from falling prey to the tragic tropes of child stardom. Then, in one of the film’s quieter–and rare non-Billie-centric–moments, their father, Patrick O’Connell, laments the powerlessness of being a dad watching your child grow up. He’s talking specifically about watching your kid drive off, with a newly minted license in hand. However, this could apply more broadly to watching his daughter Billie become the world’s new It Girl.
Eilish is a part of a generation who grew up online, sharing their thoughts and photos on a range of social media apps without much fear for the consequences. Perhaps this is why Eilish proffers up access to her home, her process, her family, and even her journal, where she scribbles lyrics, doodles of monsters and dicks, and confessions about her struggles with self-harm. Maybe privacy hits different when you’ve been voluntarily surrendering it all your life. (Seriously, Facebook is only two years younger than Eilish.) Alternatively, behind-the-scenes music docs have a long history, promising access to the inaccessible, showing the tears behind the stage smiles, the pain behind the panache. For Eilish, this means revealing not only the physical pains she endured while touring, but also the deep-seated insecurities that she’s not good enough.
Her doc grants fans a VIP pass to a world tour, through press interviews, flashy parties, a rocky Coachella performance, the creation of her Bond song, and her big Grammy night. Yet what stands out in Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry is how her dedication is shaped by fandom, hers in two senses.
A peek-a-boo flash of her neon sneaker poking out below a festival tent sends her fans into screams of elation. They block traffic in a mob of tears, cheers, and proclamations that her music saves lives. Eilish responds again and again with excitement, warmth, and group hugs. A thread about Justin Bieber reveals this isn’t about ego. At 12, she was a hardcore Belieber, who loved the Canadian pop star so fiercely that she worried she might never love a real boy as much. Enter Eilish’s boyfriend Q, who is “so fine” and showers her in praise and affection…when he shows up at all. Cutler respects the agony of teen romance by slowing down the pace to allow the doc to wallow with Eilish. Her song “xanny” plays mournfully over a break-up montage featuring many, many shots of Eilish wearing her heartbreak on her oversized polo shirt sleeve. Which might lead us to wonder, does she think her fictional relationship with Justin Bieber is better than the real thing?
Meeting Bieber in person becomes a major moment. The tables are turned as she fangirls out hard, and he wraps his arms around her, reflecting the love she has for him and her own fans. Slowly–arguably too slowly, as the docs drags at 2 hours and 20 minutes with an intermission–Cutler unfurls a thesis on what drives Eilish. She wants to be for them what Bieber was for her: The voice that pulled her through the darkness, the fantasy friend that promised there were better days ahead. “They’re not fans,” she explains early on, “They are a part of me.” And that might feel like PR if it weren’t for how often Eilish worries anything less but perfection isn’t worthy of her fans.
In a curious move, Cutler never presses Eilish for introspection. He’s unseen and unheard in the doc. The only questions asked on camera are from radio DJs, whose queries range from condescending to chipper and curious. So, Cutler never asks Eilish directly about how she’d compare herself to Bieber. How have his less-than-perfect moments impacted her appreciation of him or his music? Might she allow herself the same compassion when she’s creating? Maybe not every moment must be perfect for fear “the internet is going to be mean”?
Cutler gives no screentime to social media itself. There are no re-enactments of Twitter trends, or graphics about Instagram followers, or Soundcloud cutaways. But some of this is mentioned, like when Eilish beats herself up over a single comment that claims she was rude once. Perhaps the documentarian doesn’t want to drown out Eilish’s voice amid the millions online. Still, the double-edged sword of social media cuts in, pushing Eilish to do her best and threatening her when she falls short of impossible expectations.
Essentially, Cutler seems content to sit back and watch. So, we watch montages that track Eilish’s budding romance with Q, her growing frustration during a meet-and-greet, her post-tour physical therapy regiment. Cutler gets indulgent with the watching, turning the second half of the doc into a crawl, making for a film that is intimate yet distanced. Still, it’s impossible not to be impressed by Eilish, and her ferocious desire to be heard.
Growing up with teen pop stars like Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson, and Christina Aguilera, it was exhilarating to not only see how Eilish isn’t packaged to play into the sexy and scandalous virgin/whore cliché that has launched, then damned, so many before her. But also, it was astonishing to see how much control she has – and demands – over what she’s putting out into the world. We are witness to her writing a widely acclaimed album, full of undeniable bangers, from the comfort of her bed, high-fiving and gently feuding with her brother all the way. We see her pick out costumes from a rack of oversized streetwear. We watch as she plots out the music video for “When The Party’s Over,” from a verbal brainstorm to a video storyboard, to the prosthetic test, and shoot. (Where she notably declares she’s directing her own videos from there on out.)
When Eilish feels in control, Cutler knows how to chart a story. There’s purpose and narrative. But when she’s juggling self-doubt and romance-troubles with an ambitious tour, he lumbers into lagging sequences that seem wonky excuses to play lots of concert footage of teen girls crying and singing along. While such shots are welcome – out of the pure pandemic-inspired nostalgia for packed concerts – this is not a concert doc. A strong narrative line is lacking in these sections, so the doc idles. It’s a shame, because the high-energy teen idol whose smashing records and expectations for what a girl can do in pop deserves better than a snoozey second half. Simply put, Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry doesn’t stick the landing. Still, its star shines bright and bold throughout, so the fans probably won’t care.
“Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry” streams Friday on Apple TV+.