The pop docs are in right now. Recent documentaries about female pop stars include Taylor Swift’s Miss Americana at the beginning of 2020, a film that portrays an expertly guarded intimacy shepherded by the genre’s best strategizer, and Ariana Grande’s tour “doc” Excuse Me I Love at the end of the year, a piece even more sparing with any personal details, serving primarily as a catalogue of her Sweetener era live show. The most private moment we get of Ariana is a clip of her belting in the car while driving to her show at The Forum — which isn’t exactly breaking any new ground in the singer’s chaotic personal life.
In sharp contrast with those two coiffed and polished films, a new documentary on Billie Eilish, The World’s Little Blurry, reveals an astonishing amount about the experience of the young singer and her family and her quick rise to fame. Though Eilish has been catching industry attention since her debut single, “Ocean Eyes,” hit Soundcloud in 2015, this new film by R.J. Cutler primarily focuses on the writing, recording, release, and reception of her critically-acclaimed, Grammy-record-breaking debut album, When We All Fall Asleep Where Do We Go?
While these types of films often need to be artist-approved, and therefore leave out anything uncomfortable or actually revealing, it’s clear from the jump the cameras aren’t just there doing carefully rehearsed vignettes. From teenaged Billie’s whining and complaining about how hard songwriting is, to Finneas’ worried concern that the record they’re writing doesn’t have a hit on it, neither of the O’Connell siblings look perfect in this film. Instead, they look like people — and that’s what actually makes them even more appealing.
To hear Eilish talk about how much she thinks she sucks, or get jealous about how quickly Finneas can bust out a song is a new layer to their relationship; to watch their parents Maggie Baird and Patrick O’Connell debate whether giving their ultra-famous daughter a souped-up muscle car for her birthday is the right move brings them back to earth as real parents, ones who have the difficult job of balancing their daughter’s looming star power with her adolescence.
Even more so, Billie is in a relationship that is clearly one-sided, with a boyfriend who can’t quite be there for her and is often unreachable or emotionally distant when she needs him most; all of that is shown instead of scrapped. Even when he ditches her at Coachella, a performance that is presumably one of the most important moments in her career, he’s using the passes she got him to be elsewhere.
Still, neither Billie nor the filmmaker vilify her soon-to-be ex’s inability to be there for her. Nor do they dramatize the bouts with Tourette’s syndrome tics that emerge during a meeting with her label, or the very stark descriptions of her experiences with cutting as a pre-teen. These aren’t things Eilish hasn’t shared in public before, but seeing them in the context of her larger narrative — with her mom looking on, or taking place in the family’s small Highland Park living room — gives a new weight to what her life has been like. Eilish’s music isn’t dark because it’s trendy, or it sells, or because she’s assuming a pop star persona, it’s dark because that’s what she’s really like. And her translating that lived experience with the darker side of life is why her work resonates so deeply with not just her generation, but the ones who came before them, too.
On a lighter note, we also get to see Billie live her dream in a different way. Her former idol and object of teenage romantic obsession, Justin Bieber, not only gets on a remix of her song but also ends up becoming a friend and peer for her. From an initial social media exchange (which led to the remix of “Bad Guy”), to their long, emotional hug at Coachella, where Billie literally cries in his arms, to his phone call on the night of the Grammys, when she broke almost every record imaginable, the arc of their relationship mirrors everything else that is changing in her life. But using Bieber as a foil also deepens our understanding of what’s happening to Billie, and what happens to every teen pop idol.
At 25, Bieber is just old enough to feel comfortably distant from his teenage years, but not old enough to forget the crushing pressure of stepping into the spotlight while still navigating tasks like getting a drivers license (word to Olivia Rodrigo), breaking up with an apathetic partner, or trying to figure out if fan meet and greets are emotionally sustainable. Though Bieber has been through the wringer with his rise and fall, in Billie’s eyes, he never once lost an iota of importance. In the car, after their fateful meet-up she laments to her family how embarrassing it was that she sobbed, until they remind her that she knows exactly how that feels like, her fans often break out in tears when they see her, too.
It’s a subtle but mind-bending comparison that humanizes Billie by revealing how cyclical the process between idolizing others and self-actualizing can be. And, it’s a cutting reminder to the audience that the famous teenagers we tear down, scrutinize, surveil, and pass judgement on are likely dealing with the same degree of insecurity and uncertainty as the rest of us. Bieber’s latest single, “Lonely,” throws his own story into stark contrast, as does a recent documentary exposing how terribly Britney Spears was treated in the early 2000s. Particularly in the context of these two older stars, Billie’s decision to let this documentary take an extremely intimate look at her life, and her real struggles, rings true.
In one scene, Billie meets Katy Perry in passing at Coachella, who expresses that she’s a fan and offers a listening ear if ever needed. “This is gonna be wild for ten years, it’s gonna be crazy,” she says. “Let me know if you ever wanna talk, ’cause it’s a weird ride.” The World’s A Little Blurry gives us at least the first chapter of Billie’s weird ride, but maybe in a decade Cutler and his crew will follow up.