Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter. Sign up today.
- Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry
- Written and directed by R. J. Cutler
- Starring Billie Eilish, Maggie Baird, Finneas O’Connell, Patrick O’Connell
- Classification NA; 140 minutes
There’s no crying in baseball, but there is plenty of it to be had in pop music documentaries. Recent such films on Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande and Shawn Mendes all have at least one scene in which the star breaks down, whether from physical pain or from the distress of having to please everybody.
It’s a filmmaker’s crutch. Because there’s no built-in narrative when it comes to young recording artists whose careers have been all ups and no downs, the weeping interlude provides a quick measure of drama. It’s not only lazy filmmaking, it’s emotionally manipulative.
In the Apple Original Films production Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry, director R. J. Cutler can’t resist the cheap stunt, dwelling on a moment when the teenaged singer loses it when she sprains her ankle during the first song of a concert. “I just want to give you a good show, and, like, I can’t,” she tells the audience, before running off stage.
Coaxed by her handlers, the Therefore I Am singer then jumps on the back of a roadie – is that a teenage pop star thing? Bieber did the same thing on the Great Wall of China – and is carried back to the very stage she sprinted from moments earlier.
Though the event isn’t staged, it feels inevitable – straight out of the pop-doc playbook. It’s a shame, because the rest of the film provides a fascinating and uncontrived look at a dead-eyed downer-pop artist who is the antithesis of the typical commercial music phenom. Tricks that Lady Gaga would pull at the drop of a meat dress simply aren’t part of Eilish’s keeping-it-real game.
The World’s a Little Blurry covers a world tour and the making of Eilish’s debut album from 2019, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?. The heart of the needlessly lengthy 140-minute film is Eilish’s support system, which is to say her family – a screenwriter mother, a construction worker father and her older brother/producer/songwriting partner Finneas O’Connell. They’re all grounded, thoughtful and dedicated to the protection of a self-loathing teen who is coming of age in front of the world.
When the record label presses for a hit single, the Billie-whisperer brother has a plan to come up with an accessible song that won’t conflict with his sister’s more organic (and tortured) approach to songwriting. Elsewhere, when mother defends daughter’s integrity, Eilish flashes the sweetest “that’s my mom” smile.
One sub-plot involves Eilish’s quest for a driver’s licence. Pointing out that her family members drive minivans and Mazdas, she jokingly says she’s “drowning in losers.” She wants a matte black muscle car, and she gets one, complete with a big green bow on the hood. It doesn’t have the “souped-up” engine, her mother whispers to the camera. “But she doesn’t know that.”
She does now.
The other sub-plot stars Bieber, Eilish’s hero. When she learns the Canadian superstar want to collaborate, she’s awestruck but conflicted. She doesn’t think she’s worthy of it, but how could she say no? “He could ask me to kill my dog, and I would,” she admits.
Bieber is presented as a cautionary tale. A boy star who turned jerkish and bratty as a young man, Bieber struggled dealing with his sudden hurricane-force fame. Now in his mid-twenties, he’s come out the other side now as a mature adult. The way he mentors Eilish in the film is heartwarming and, dare I say, tear-jerking.
Here’s the thing about Elish and crying, though: She doesn’t seem capable of it. Her music is strikingly unemotive, even when singing about the saddest things. She’s a small-voiced introvert who doesn’t like to belt her songs, for fear of the internet making fun of her. She believes she’s damaged – “no matter what happens, you’ll always be broken,” reads a diary entry – and admits that she’s “bad at taking care of my mental health.” Eilish talks about locking herself in the bathroom when she was younger, making herself bleed with a razor because “I thought I deserved it.”
Now she bleeds through her songs. “I’m never feeling happy, so why would I write about things I don’t know about,” she says. “I feel the dark things.”
A radio interviewer says that in her songs it sounds as if Eilish is on the brink of crying. We see it in the film too: On the brink, but not quite all the way. In more than one scene, Eilish seems to be wiping away tears that aren’t there. It’s the saddest thing.
Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry will be released in theatres and premiere on Apple TV+ on Feb. 26.
In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)