Wednesday 2 June 2021

Edge of 17: "Billie Eilish: The World's a Little Blurry"

Billie Eilish has become such an overnight sensation that she's landed her own two-and-a-half hour documentary profile, ahead of Taylor Swift, Carly Rae Jepsen or any other name a fortysomething film critic might pluck from the air in an ill-fated attempt to appear down with the teenagers. For anybody over 25, R.J. Cutler's 
The World's a Little Blurry - granted a UK theatrical release this past weekend, after premiering on Apple TV+ back in February - holds out the prospect of enlightenment as to who this kid is and where she's come from, even before it gets round to addressing the matter of whether or not we might want to stream Eilish's Bond theme. (The target demographic will have long since made their minds up.) Where has she come from? The film introduces us to the product of nurturing, not especially pushy-seeming musician parents, who piloted Billie round the L.A. talent show circuit in her pre-teen days, and have since left her be to make music in her bedroom with producer brother Finneas, singing the lyrics off her ubiquitous phone. Part of the project here is to position Eilish as an authentic alternative to those Cowellian poppets who've flooded the market these past two decades. Early on, we eavesdrop on a debate in the family's (comparatively modest) kitchen about the record label's insistence on having a big fat commercial hit with which to launch the debut LP, during which young Billie defends her right to go entirely her own way. (Everything's relative, of course: the film's been firmly stamped with the record label's imprimatur, and one reason it runs well beyond two hours is the insistence on giving every track, commercial or otherwise, an airing.) Who she is might be simpler: 17 years old as the movie finds her, a dead ringer for the French actress Adèle Haenel, far livelier in person than she sounds on record. Her keynote is a hyper-modern relatability: she's a dork - sometimes goofy, sporadically bolshy - with creative urges, artlessly dyed hair, a pet tarantula, and those bruises teenagers get on their legs from repeatedly bumping into things. Or from jumping into adoring crowds, in Eilish's case. She doesn't see her fans as fans, but friends; they, in turn, don't see her as a star or an emergent millionaire, but embrace her as one of their own.

The world is a little blurry, then, and what Cutler's film chronicles more effectively than anything else is a rapid shift in the field of pop-cultural stardom. Its subject displays none of that standoffish control freakery by which a trendsetter like Madonna had to assert her dominance, memorably captured in 1991's In Bed with Madonna, nor does she appear especially keen to foster that mystique Prince threw around his shoulders like a purple cape. (She is to Dylan in Don't Look Back as the aliens are to François Truffaut in Close Encounters: a creature from another dimension entirely.) The film's first half makes extensive use of Eilish family home videos, and much of the rest displays the relaxed, easy-access textures of a celebrity's Instagram stories or TikTok clips. Eilish either plays along with this stylistic choice, or she's too young to know anything else: as with her music, the film is a means of putting herself further out there, while holding very little back. So she shows the camera her lyrics book, addended with hand-scrawled pussies and dicks; at one point, we see her and Finneas working out whether they can get the sound of her putting in her retainer onto a track; throughout, she appears entirely comfortable with putting personal phone calls on the record, and being filmed waking up. She can present as socially maladroit, failing to recognise Orlando Bloom backstage at Coachella, in what counts as this film's Kevin Costner moment. More often, she comes across as honest to the point of filterless, telling one crowd she'll be performing (read: hobbling around) with shin splints, rather than adopting the old trouper's technique of grinning and bearing it. (One thing the movie makes very clear: how hard being a teenage popstrel is on your legs. Those bruises really are but the half of it.) She's also not shy about being filmed in the grip of her occasional tic attacks, a symptom of her Tourette's brought on whenever she's feeling especially tired and vulnerable, although what's truly startling here is just how self-aware, self-possessed Eilish remains even in the midst of these fits: a girl with Tourette's commenting on what it is to be a girl with Tourette's. 

Finneas remarks early on that one of the issues his sister faces going forward is that she's "so woke to her own Internet persona" - a problem, and a phrase, pre-millennial popstars never had to wrestle with. What Cutler's film suggests is how that specific wokeness can be both a limitation (preventing a creative from developing beyond the character they've created for themselves, out of fear they might scatter their core audience) and a strength (allowing the nimble mind to circumvent any expectation that audience might have put on their shoulders). What it shows is that Eilish is in a pretty good position to negotiate that particular obstacle course. Her understanding of fan culture may be key here, deriving as it does from her own experiences as a pre-teen Belieber (a revelation that will make some viewers feel very, very old); at home, her parents would seem to be doing a sterling job of keeping her on the straight and narrow; while her live shows do as much as any I've seen lately to open up the fantasy of being a teenage popstar to the audience - to create a shared, rather than hierarchical experience. If all else fails, well, she comes away from Coachella with Katy Perry's home phone number, and a sisterly offer of advice. Extended exposure here reveals the music remains altogether too angsty for this viewer's tastes, although I'll add a grudgingly admiring note that any singer-songwriter who's fashioned a singalonga refrain out of the phrase "I'm so bored" is never going to lack for the disposable income of a certain demographic. If the film often feels a little flat dramatically - as Instagrammable content often is - that's because we're in the first act of what may yet prove a major career: the real drama will likely follow once Billie moves out and her loyal followers are tempted by life events into moving on. At two hours twenty, The World's a Little Blurry can seem like an extended hangout session, but - matching its subject for self-awareness - it also knows how hanging out can provide reassuring contextualisation when faced with a brow-furrowing phenomenon such as this.

The World's a Little Blurry is now playing in selected cinemas, and available to stream via Apple TV+.

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