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CINEMA: Is That All There Is To A Fire?

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BILLIE EILISH: The World Is A Little Blurry (dir. R.J Cutler, 140 min., USA, 2021)

Dan Tabor_byline_avatarBY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC Early on in Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Bit Blurry, the Apple+ documentary that charts the meteoric rise of the young green-tressed pop phenom, there’s a moment at a sold out concert where Eilish parts the crowd of screaming preteens like Charlton Heston in the Ten Commandments so security can carry out an injured girl. Obviously shaken by the ordeal, Eilish asks the crowd if they’re okay, she then emphatically states “they need to be fucking okay, because they are the reason she’s okay.” It’s raw, unscripted and heartfelt, and the doc spends its entire runtime chasing the purity of that one moment to no avail.

The film begins, as these films always do, with the obligatory collage of home movie footage documenting Billie’s many musical endeavors from toddler to teen, and her transition from dancing to singing. This is after she tragically ruptured her hip growth plate at the age of 13. Not missing a beat before hitting 14, Eilish pens “Ocean Eyes,” her first song with her brother Finneas to get some love on the radio. Fast forwarding three years, we see her recording When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, the debut that would make her a household name, and the rest as they say, is history.

The film effortlessly entwines Billie’s wholesome sitcom-eque home life with her ascension to pop stardom — one minute she’s trying to get her driver’s license, and the next she’s going on her first tour. Director R.J. Cutler keeps the narrative light while hitting the story beats of her career up until this point: recording Bad Guy with her brother in his bedroom, her embarrassing turn at Coachella where she forgot the lyrics to her own songs and finally her triumphant domination of the 2020 Grammys for the grand finale.

The best bits in documentaries like this are when the subject forgets they are being filmed and their mask slips for just long enough for the camera to get a glimpse beneath the veneer. That’s what made Taylor Swift’s Miss Americana so damn great and eye-opening for non-fans: unguarded moments where, for example, Swift laments her remaining shelf life as a popstar – like a real person. There’s not really a moment here where Eilish doesn’t come across as self-conscious, and her moments of quiet introspection often feel coached, rather than spontaneous. While there’s a brief mention of Billie’s struggles with self harm and another of her living with tourettes, it really feels like she’s not ready to explore her own demons yet. This point is underscored by Finneas who laments offhandedly about how “woke” Billie is about her cultivated personae and how it’s viewed online.

Because of that, The World’s a Little Bit Blurry lacks any real gravity or friction and feels more like cinematic fanservice. About the only high drama in doc’s nearly two and a half hour run time is an argument between Billie and Finneas about his desire to make “commercial music that appeals to the masses” or  when Eilish decides to break it off with Q, her long time boyfriend.  While the brother/sister argument is dispatched in record time when mom to brokers a truce, Q spends the majority of the film standing up or flaking out on Billie at various events. That is until he deserts her when she needs him most — during her disastrous Coachella performance — and that is the end of Q.

Given the recent crop of schadenfreude celebrity docs, I really can’t hold it against the film that Eilish is so well-adjusted and it’s actually a refreshing change to feel good about the subject after the credits roll. But I can’t help but think this project was probably a bit premature, that we need to give Billie a bit more time to grow comfortable in her own skin and gain some perspective. I would have preferred a doc about the artistic angst she will no doubt face when making the followup to Where Do We Go, all the while looking back on her seemingly effortless rise. While curious onlookers and casual fans will no doubt enjoy TWALBB, the super fans — those looking for the source of her midnight-dark narratives — might have to wait a bit longer for the Invisiline-rocking 16 year-old to let us in on the secret.

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