Pop

Billie Eilish’s Disney+ Special Is A Highly Polished Yet Somewhat Unsatisfying Live Experience

Even if you’re not familiar with Billie Eilish‘s story by now, you probably know that the 19-year-old pop sensation is inextricably linked with Los Angeles. So it only makes sense that she would host a cinematic (because, LA; because, movies) concert in her hometown. Even if no one can technically attend. Enter: Happier Than Ever: A Love Letter To Los Angeles, currently streaming on Disney+.

If you need catching up, here’s a primer on Billie’s SoCal heritage: Born in East LA to showbiz parents, Billie grew up singing in the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus and started writing songs as early as age 11. Her debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, was famously written in her teeny Highland Park bedroom with brother and producer Finneas. Today, Eilish is a multiple-Grammy-winning household name, ultra-famous for her otherworldly vocals, lyrical honesty, and genre-jumping soundscapes. She’s also gotten the film treatment before: earlier this year, fans got an up-close look at Billie’s incalculable rise to fame in RJ Cutler’s Apple TV+ documentary Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry, which felt satisfying to watch largely due to how unflinchingly it portrayed the upshots and unglamorous downsides to its subject’s viral success.

The viewer got to tag along with Billie as she and Finneas pieced together what would become When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? They watched Billie meet her musical hero, Justin Bieber, fill her room with free swag, and amasses literal armfuls of Grammys. Yet the doc also showed the frustrating and mundane aspects of global fame: negative comments from fans and tour injuries and burnout, among other things. Now, in support of the recently released Happier Than Ever, which she has not been able to properly perform live due to the pandemic (yet — her tour kicks off this month), Billie has teamed up with Disney for the hour-long A Love Letter to Los Angeles, where she performs her second album from start to finish. It’s probably unfair to compare The World’s A Little Blurry to A Love Letter, given how different they are. And yet: knowing the raw visual experiences audiences have had with Billie, between Cutler’s doc and her many music videos, it’s easy to feel slightly underwhelmed by this glossy, Disney-princess iteration.

Of course, this is not to say that watching A Love Letter To Los Angeles is a waste of time; far from it. As promised in the title, the special is a true celebration of Billie’s hometown, with the singer — at times animated like an actual Disney character — driving around Hollywood at night, gazing at billboards splashed with her face, and sitting in Eastside dining gem Brite Spot. The very same children’s choir she grew up singing in joins her on Happier Than Ever standout “Goldwing.” Billie and Finneas are joined by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, who add a dramatic, old-Hollywood oomph to the proceedings. Even the performance setting, Hollywood Bowl (totally empty this time), feels appropriate, given how much that outdoor venue means to both the LA music and film worlds (the Bowl has famously appeared in movies like Beaches, Xanadu, and the original A Star Is Born). Because the seats are empty, fans will no doubt love the unexpectedly intimate experience of watching Billie from the comfort of their living rooms. If they’re also from LA, which the special takes great care to portray in the rosiest light possible, they’ll love it that much more.

But something also gets lost when looking at Billie through the sanitized Disney lens. Billie as animation is nice, sometimes majestic (though having her sprout actual cartoon wings feels irritatingly on-the-nose; it’s the City of Angels, OK, we get it). And while the Los Angeles Philharmonic adds soaring layers to songs like “Everybody Dies” and “Therefore I Am,” Billie’s own vocals sound pre-recorded, which takes away from the live experience. Even the color tones throughout look monochrome, with Billie and Finneas costumed in various shades of brown and taupe. For an artist that transmits such a gorgeous array of color and substance at all times, these visuals risk looking a little drab.

Part of what makes Billie an appealing pop star is the raw, relatable emotion she displayed in The World’s A Little Blurry, not to mention the articulate, timely lyricism on Happier Than Ever, where she addresses fame, industry double-standards, and abuses of power. And, don’t get me wrong, an evening concert in an empty Hollywood Bowl, surrounded by orchestral standard-bearers, is nothing to outright dismiss. Probably the best way to enjoy the Disney+ concert special is if you think of it as an amuse-bouche to the real thing.

A Love Letter to Los Angeles is now streaming on Disney+. Happier Than Ever is out now Darkroom/Interscope.

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