She's Taken Out Her Invisalign and This is the Movie
Her Future March 5, 2021
On The World's a Little Blurry
lingering (though not front-and-center) question on the subject of the now-19-year-old pop star Billie Eilish: Will she wind up on a dark path like the ones
traveled by the A-list teenage musicians to come before her? (See: Britney Spears, Michael Jackson, Eilish’s childhood infatuation Justin Bieber.) Despite her quick ascendence, the answer to that earlier question has always felt like “no.” Unlike her spiritual predecessors, Eilish has an apparently strong family structure steadying her. (Eilish still lives at home with her parents and collaborator/best friend/brother.) And the current media climate is less openly cruel now than it has been in decades past to young stars. Media reckonings have sprung from that aforementioned trio's treatment; tabloids and invasive paparazzi shots have lost much of their capital.
Arguably, the definitive media text to chart how things have turned out so far for Eilish
has been an annual check-in with Vanity Fair. Since 2017, Eilish has done a video interview with the magazine a year out from the previous one, all guided by the same set of questions. It’s been astonishing these last five years witnessing her rise; it felt like barely any time had passed between pop paragon Charli XCX touting the little-known Eilish as someone to watch and Eilish actually becoming a household name. The Vanity Fair interviews (particularly the 2018 one, during which Eilish was conspicuously having a difficult time adjusting to her newfound ubiquity) have become fascinating snapshots of what it could feel like to explode at the bewildering pace Eilish has.
Late last month saw the release of another (and more definitive) chronicler of Eilish’s climb. The World’s a Little Blurry, an engrossing, nearly two-and-a-half-hour-long documentary on Apple TV+, follows Eilish’s career from 2018 to now. (It begins as she’s still plotting some of the songs to go on her debut album, 2019’s WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?.) Directed by R.J. Cutler (1993’s The War Room, 2009’s The September Issue), the movie is an anomaly of its genre. It has less in common with the press-release-pretty, propagandistic behind-the-scenes music docs to supplement the careers of Katy Perry, Beyoncé, and (him again) Justin Bieber and more with the movies to shine lights on the lives of Madonna and Grace Jones.
In Madonna's and Jones' documentaries — 1991’s Truth or Dare and 2018’s Bloodlight and Bami, respectively — there wasn’t an overarching goal by their directors to ascribe a touching narrative to or flatter the person at their respective centers. Both movies instead collected fly-on-the-wall scenes. We were to put the fragments together to make a whole ourselves. Idolatry was not the point. Cutler had final cut on The World’s a Little Blurry — an indicator that his movie sought not to amplify performative candor but uncover genuine truths.
Billie Eilish in The World's a Little Blurry.
ike Truth or Dare and Bloodlight and Bami, The World’s a Little Blurry “relies on the accretive power of the mundane,” as the New York Times' Jon Caramanica put it in his review. There are no talking-head
interviews. Few title cards remind us where we are at milestone-wise in Eilish’s career. We get straightforwardly exciting-to-watch making-the-music scenes. (I laughed hearing the smash hit “bad guy" referred to in its nascent form as “that song ‘bad guy’” by Eilish while she sits on her brother's bed, hovering over a microphone.) Extended sequences focus on Eilish’s dizzying experience at Coachella (where Perry benevolently offers herself as a mentor) and Eilish’s idolization of (then kinship with) Justin Bieber (him again). We survey professional and artistic frustrations, breakthroughs, slivers of a doomed romance.
No narrative thread is ever especially emphasized over another. One of the movie’s centerpieces revolves around a family fight (though a loving one) in the kitchen. A family member’s iPhone watches as a disagreement unfolds around writing a hit. Is it pandering to be extra diligent about accessibility? (Everyone but Eilish thinks it isn’t that bad a thing to spend more time on at least one track on the album with your ideas tipped slightly more toward mainstream interests.) The moment, whether Eilish and family would agree, is charming. A scene involving a fleeting family spat over hitmaking felt like something one might find on an episode of The Partridge Family (1970-'74). (I
wondered if another set of related L.A.-based musicians — HAIM — has ever had a discussion like this one.)
The World’s a Little Blurry’s simple-narrative-eschewing approach can disorient. But that's a virtue more than it is a setback: it complements the surreality of the artistic process and of celebrity. There are no belabored points made about fame, Eilish herself. The first stretch of the movie feels almost hermetically sealed — it mostly takes place in Eilish’s Los Angeles home, where she writes and records in her brother's bedroom and maps out music-video ideas in the backyard. When markers of major fame (a decked-out car for an 18th birthday, a radio interview, an early sold-out show) appear, we nearly do a double-take. Like last year’s Miss Americana (2020), which recorded Taylor Swift’s political awakening among other things, one of The World’s a Little Blurry’s major successes is effectively capturing how uncanny and psychologically intrusive a thing fame is. I said earlier that I don’t expect Eilish having a difficult trajectory like many of her child-star antecedents. But Cutler also so astutely conveys the hard-to-bear pressures of fame that we can’t help but think about how there are only so many things a supportive family and sense of groundedness can do to ward off damage. “I literally can’t have a bad moment,” Eilish notes at one point.
In one memorable scene, Eilish’s mother, Maggie Baird, goes off on a label employee. The latter wonders aloud if Eilish's music should avoid being so unambiguously anti-drug. (See: “Xanny.”) What if it turns out Eilish likes drugs and alcohol when she's older? What if the public starts to call her a hypocrite? One reason Baird is ticked off is because she finds it dishonest to make art not entirely authentic to your mindset when it's made. The other is that it suggests executives by now almost anticipate young stars like Eilish to crash and burn. Eilish will not, Baird is subtextually affirming. (Eilish, by contrast, doesn’t think the suggestion is so bad; throughout the exchange she makes a face suggesting she’d prefer being anywhere else.) I perhaps cynically thought, however, that Baird’s assurances couldn’t necessarily be guaranteed, as much as she would like them to. When dealing with the kind of everywhere-all-the-time fame Eilish is enduring, at such a vulnerable part of her life, no less, you can never totally know. As Eilish’s dad puts it in a later scene, after he’s given his daughter driving advice before she heads to meet her boyfriend in West Hollywood, you simply cannot protect your kids from everything. Especially not when they're famous.
Particularly in comparison to the majority of getting-to-know-the-artist documentaries, The World’s a Little Blurry feels texturally "real." Still, I couldn't help but think about the footage left on the cutting-room floor. Was there anything dispensed that might have shifted my concluding perspectives? I wonder because Cutler, who spent about 10 to 15 days a month with Eilish for footage, has said the first cut of the movie ran some 27 hours. And I wonder because the last thing we see in the movie is an authoritative statement from Interscope Records imposed on a black screen affirming they are this movie's author. Such dubieties aside, this detailed, earnest attempt at behind-the-scenes filmmaking is mostly illustrative and inspired — and it made me see Eilish’s world a little clearer. B+