“I had a dream. I got everything I wanted.” – Billie Eilish, “Everything I Wanted” (2019)
Princess of the Pop-Star Universe Billie Eilish has 50 million monthly Spotify listeners and 38 million YouTube subscribers. Her song “Bad Guy” has over a billion YouTube views, she’s played live in over 20 countries, and on January 26, 2020 – at the age of 18 – Ms. Eilish won five Grammy awards.
Five Grammys! And what did you accomplish at 18? Yea, same here.
She also stars in a movie: a documentary helmed by R.J. Cutler. Cutler’s docs feature prominent figures, like Oliver North (“A Perfect Candidate” (1996)), former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney (The World According to Dick Cheney” (2013)), and John Belushi (“Belushi” (2020)), but a 5’3” teenager – currently 19 – could be the biggest of them all.
Who is this soprano with a few musical styles – such as EDM and Industrial – and has captured the world’s collective ear? Well, she doesn’t croon about bubble-gum good times, like some of her previous female contemporaries. In her videos, Billie does not hop on the back of a pickup truck, sport Daisy Dukes, and cheer about a “Party in the U.S.A.”, or traverse through a tropical wilderness, transform into a Queen of the Jungle, don a Sheena-like outfit of animal skins, and “Roar”.
No, this Los Angeles native strikes different chords – while frequently wearing drapery that resembles outfits from “New Zoo Revue” (1972) but designed by artist Daniel Johnston – about struggling relationships, nightmares, and thoughts of suicide, at least that’s what I gathered. Admittedly, my pulse on the current music scene tracks somewhere between dismal and nonexistent, so my knowledge of Billie approximates my know-how on nuclear physics or keeping a house plant alive for more than a week.
…but I digress.
“Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry” is an insider’s look into this superstar’s daily life, behind the bright lights and sold-out arenas. In effect, the film serves a broad spectrum of audiences, between her most die-hard fans and Eilish novices.
Cutler divides his picture – which serves a lengthy 140-minute runtime – into halves and includes an actual intermission.
During the first hour, the documentary follows a familiar pattern. For instance, “Katy Perry The Movie: Part of Me” (2012) and “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” (2011) offer retrospectives into the singers’ humble beginnings, climbs towards fame, behind-the-scenes looks at their travels between concert venues, and intimate conversations. Both movies feature plenty of B-roll, in other words, the oceans of elbow grease and piles of pixie dust needed to drive the human and actual machinery towards – and to maintain – a global reach of the catchiest, 3-minute radio tunes.
Those films successfully deliver their stated intentions: to inform and entertain while also double as public relations productions by extending their messaging into cinema. These aren’t gripping storylines, but the films do hit their marks. Not all such movies deserve such moderate praise, and please refer to the recent Shawn Mendes doc as a prime example. The paper-thin Shawn Mendes vehicle – “Shawn Mendes: In Wonder” (2020) – carries all gravitas and blatant commercialism of an 82-minute Susan Powter infomercial.
Yes, Mendes’ film is truly that painful to sit through, but hey, he seems like a nice kid.
Thankfully, “Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry” lands near Katy’s and Justin’s films, even though Billie’s tracks don’t resemble her fellow performers’ styles whatsoever. R.J. finds lots of moments at home. We discover Billie’s relationship with her close family. Her eccentric, caring parents – Maggie Baird and Patrick O’Connell – introduced a home-school environment of learning and support in which Billie and her older brother Finneas thrived. The family remains tight and devoted, although the freedoms of a make-your-own Montessori school also break norms, as the f-word occasionally flies around without a second thought.
The movie’s first-half, however, seems to buzz like an attention deficit disorder patient, as casual discourse at home then jumps to tiny concert snippets from around the globe. Cutler’s vision gets a bit frustrating because we’re only treated to – seemingly – 20 or 30 seconds of live on-stage footage at a time. Granted, editors Greg Finton and Lindsay Utz don’t force us into dizzying, endless micro-cuts of “Moulin Rouge!” (2001), but it would be pleasant to sit and rest for a bit. Still, the camera lingers long enough at times to capture celebratory moments and also Billie’s insecurities.
At one point, she declares to her adoring, loyal fans, “This is so weird. I’m a nobody. I don’t know why you like me.”
Well, they love her and hang on every word, as plenty of smiling, doting young people sing her lyrics back to Billie and appear entranced with awe.
The film takes a marked, decisive turn just before the intermission with a landmark event and then continues with Eilish’s real-life narrative through some brooding twists and sincere smudges of self-doubt. Uncertainties and mental chaos litter most humans’ teen years, and Billie is no exception. That creative energy fuels her songs, but Finneas takes sharp notice as well, as the film drives home his producing and writing work. He’s a supportive, creative force, and remember, Billie is 19 now, but the bulk of this film runs before her 18th birthday, so our heroine comes with all the trappings and failings of any teen. She’s too grounded to be a diva, but she isn’t immune from occasional or adolescent declarations.
These authentic hiccups and missteps, however, do give the documentary discernible weight and sobriety, and provide the audience opportunities for empathy. The film is an insightful open door, and while it doesn’t shy away from Billie’s struggles, there’s no doubt that Cutler and his team offer plenty of moments of her kindness, glory, joy, and wild success. This includes – finally – offering full compliments of a couple of songs during the film’s second hour.
Still, how did Billie Eilish command so many astonishing accomplishments? Why does her music resonate with so many people? Where will her career go next?
“Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry” doesn’t really respond to these questions. Then again, at ages 16, 17, 18, or 19, most of us didn’t have many answers either.
⭐⭐ 1/2 out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Image and Trailer credits: Apple TV