One of the hottest movies of 2020 — one month in — is the Taylor Swift documentary Miss Americana, which is streaming on Netflix following its opening-night premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. This is not just any pop-star music doc, or so the glowing reviews would have us believe at present (not to pull a Kanye, but Beyonce had one of the best music docs of all time on Netflix last year and while it had an even greater critical reception, almost nobody was talking about it at year’s end). The film has appeal and substance for viewers whether they’re diehard fans or know nothing of the famous recording artist.
While watching Miss Americana, which I found to be just fine for a PR-heavy star-approved film of its kind, I was reminded of a number of other movies, mostly docs, that I think should be watched next in order to fully appreciate Swift’s showcase.
As if this musical’s recency wasn’t already enough to be on my mind going into Miss Americana, the doc opens on a shot of Swift playing the piano as her cat walks across the keys. That’s the first of many moments with her pet(s), including one in which a cat (the same one? I don’t know; she has three of them apparently) is carried in a special backpack with a viewing window for his fuzzy little face. On another level, though, Swift’s cats reportedly inspired her Cats co-star Rebel Wilson’s character, Jennyanydots.
While the movie was clawed to death by critics and has been a disappointment at the box office, it’s quickly finding new life as a cult classic with “rowdy” (or “meowdy”) screenings during which the audience is “encouraged to clap, purr, hiss, and hairball cough when the time feels right.” Like Miss Americana, Cats also has a new original song co-written by Swift in the film.
Taylor Swift: Reputation Stadium Tour (2018)
If you’re a Swift fan (Swiftie?) and you wish there was more concert footage in Miss Americana, there are other films and videos and specials for that (but you probably already know that since you’re a Swiftie). Taylor Swift: Reputation Stadium Tour, in particular, is relevant because Miss Americana uses some of its footage (if you’re a Swiftie, you’ve already seen it and may have experienced some deja vu when seeing the material again in the new documentary).
The special, which was filmed at an Arlington concert at the end of the Reputation tour, is directed by Grammy-nominated filmmaker Paul Dugdale, who has bridged what he does with pop music documentaries before, having helmed One Direction: Where We Are – The Concert Film and also consulted on Morgan Spurlock’s One Direction: This Is Us.
Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
No, Taylor Swift isn’t unknowingly a robot (at least, that’s not a revelation of the documentary), but sometimes her outfits do look like they’re from the future. The reason Blade Runner 2049 is on this list, though, is because the movie’s villain is partly based on her. But Taylor Swift isn’t a villain, and Miss Americana proves it, the fans are shouting now. Agreed, but here’s what actress Sylvia Hoeks told Bustle about the inspiration for her character, the replicant personal assistant and enforcer Luv:
“I looked at big celebrities, big singers, who are younger girls, like Taylor Swift or Selena Gomez. [these people] who have big platforms and have to have certain control in their life, because every little second of their day is probably somebody making a picture of them or putting them in the media. So their whole life kind of happens virtually.”
Some of Miss Americana deals with that aspect of Swift’s life, and it also shows how she has become a bad guy in the media and for certain people in the general population due to her dealings with fame, paparazzi, and public platform. None of it has driven her to kill (at least, that’s not a revelation of the documentary), but can we see how someone like her could become someone/thing like Luv? I don’t actually see it, so for me this one’s a necessary re-watch to get Hoeks’ point.
Gaga: Five Foot Two (2017)
Like Miss Americana, this pop music doc premiered at a prestigious film festival just days before dropping on Netflix. But Gaga: Five Foot Two went for Toronto rather than Sundance. Additionally, it’s similarly got all the usual elements of an elevated film of its kind, yet they also have something else particularly in common: reinvention. Whether or not they’re heavily constructed PR tools, the changes to their personas as artists make for interesting cinema.
Swift’s latest reinvention and her doc’s fleshing out and defense of the next stage in her life and career is maybe less visually transformative than Lady Gaga‘s toning down her look and music from the outrageous meat-wearing Mother Monster to the more genuine and personal, but both docs deliver emotional portraits of their subjects that go beyond them just being part of a rebranding campaign.
After Tiller (2013)
One reason documentary fans were looking forward to Miss Americana was producer Morgan Neville, who won an Oscar for 20 Feet from Stardom, a music doc with a lot more on its mind than expected. Another reason was director Lana Wilson, co-director of After Tiller. Yes, that’d be the film about late-term abortion and the last four doctors in the US who perform the procedure. Aligning with Wilson is almost more of a political statement for Swift than her direct comments and stances depicted in the film, especially for a once seemingly conservative and avowed Christian celebrity.
But Wilson wasn’t just an interesting choice because she typically deals with heavier subject matter (her first solo directorial effort, 2017’s The Departure, is about suicide). She’s also a more thoughtful and caring director than you’d expect for what could just be an easy pop music star profile. She’d easily gain the respect and trust of someone like Swift by also giving her full respect and trust to her subject. Ultimately, I still found Miss Americana a choppier and fluffier doc than I was looking for given my appreciation for After Tiller, but it’s still clearly a better doc than it could have been for having Wilson at the helm.
Justin Bieber: Never Say Never (2011)
I can’t curate a list inspired by a pop music doc and not include this modern masterpiece of the genre. Never mind it’s extremely low IMDb rating, which is obviously the doing of haters who haven’t even seen the film. Directed by Jon M. Chu before he rose in Hollywood to make G.I. Joe and Now You See Me sequels and the Crazy Rich Asians adaptation, Justin Bieber: Never Say Never is a fascinating story of a kid’s rise to fame in the internet era. Who cares what you think about Bieber or his talent, this new kind of music industry tale (well-paired with 2012’s Don’t Stop Believin’: An Everyman’s Journey) should be viewed as a piece of cultural history. Like Miss Americana, it pleases the fans while also offering something for the rest of us.
Shut Up & Sing (2006)
Admittedly, this is the film I felt most compelled to recommend after watching Miss Americana. The section where Swift acknowledges that she’s been instructed to say apolitical to avoid becoming like the Dixie Chicks, goes by very quick and might not fully resonate with younger fans who neither know who that country trio is or the extent of their story following their criticism of President George W. Bush. Shut Up & Sing expands on that story with an intimate portrait of Emily Robison, Natalie Maines, and Martie Maguire as women, not just music artists.
Like the Swift doc, this one also brought in one of the most respected women in documentary. Shut Up & Sing is co-directed by two-time Oscar-winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple (Harlan County USA, American Dream) with Cecilia Peck, though both of them came onto the project fairly late, after hundreds of hours of footage had already been shot. They pulled it together mostly in post and wound up with an underrated work of nonfiction cinema that unlike Miss Americana winds up even more of a political doc than music doc.
Lonely Boy (1962)
Here’s the other music doc I have to include with any curation of the genre. After all, it’s (according to my personal submission to Sight & Sound), one of the top 10 documentaries of all time. The half-hour short by Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroitoris at least a pioneer music doc, one of the very first of its kind, albeit under-acknowledged as such. Part concert film and part behind-the-scenes intimate music artist profile, Lonely Boy focuses on then teen idol Paul Anka and is also an early example of Canada’s cinema direct movement, which is akin to America’s direct cinema movement, which later in the decade included music docs by D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles brothers. It was made with the approval of Anka and his team and like the majority of music docs today functions as a publicity tool while balancing the marketed image with some observational and confessional material.