PARK CITY, Utah — A fun thing at the Sundance Film Festival is how everybody bends over backward to be blasé about movie stars. Gods and goddesses of the silver screen walk among us on these snowy streets without raising any eyebrows, jockeying for seats at premieres held inside high school auditoriums and temporarily converted gyms. Founder Robert Redford is always around here somewhere and a few years ago I swear there was a week when I couldn’t walk to work without running into Jane Fonda. (You also don’t want to be sitting anywhere near Alec Baldwin during a contentious Q&A, trust me.) And yet this year’s opening night was abuzz like I haven’t felt in my nine years of coming to Sundance, with even the most jaded, veteran festivalgoers low-key losing their minds over the arrival of Taylor Swift.
I was going to say that Swifty is the kind of superstar that Sundance seldom sees these days, but let’s face it — she’s famous in a way just about nobody else is anymore. In this era of niche markets and stratified stardom, Taylor’s a throwback to the musical monoculture of pop icons with whom the entire country was on a first-name basis, like Michael, Madonna and Bruce. “Miss Americana” — which opened the Sundance Film Festival last week and drops on Netflix this Friday — is a surprisingly sturdy documentary about the star’s attempts to navigate 1980s-level mega-fame amid the pitfalls of 21st-century celebrity. Like most of Swift’s musical output, the movie is a bit over-calculated, enormously appealing and far more carefully constructed than it might appear at first glance.
Partially a product relaunch, the film begins with our superstar being notified that after years of taking top honors, she’s been shut out of the big three Grammy nomination categories for her lackluster 2017 album “Reputation.” It’s a heartbreaker of a phone call, as we watch our desperate-for-approval starlet choke back tears and angrily insist she’ll just have to make a better record next time. As explained in perhaps too many direct-to-camera confessional interview segments, “Miss Americana” is about a young woman who always measured herself against external markers like awards and material success, and once she achieved them all beyond her wildest dreams realized just how lonely it can be sitting up there on top of the world.
The expertly edited film alternates between a chronological overview of Swift’s swift (sorry) ascension from country music child prodigy to pop superstar, foregrounding an eager-to-please personality with a superhuman work ethic. The present-tense segments focus on her efforts to bounce back from the personal and professional disappointments of “Reputation,” including some juicy studio footage shot during the writing and recording of her delicious pop confection “ME!” with Brendon Urie of Panic! At The Disco. During this time, we’re also following the fallout from the sexual assault case in which Swift was groped by a gross Denver disc jockey who then turned around and sued her for millions of dollars. (And there’s still more of Kanye West acting, in former President Obama’s words, like a “jackass.”)
The court case left the star shattered and yearning to do something more with her celebrity, igniting activist ideals heretofore stifled by canny commercial considerations. Swift is so appalled by Tennessee Senate candidate Marsha Blackburn (“Trump in a wig,” Taylor calls her) that she decides to break her longstanding “no politics” policy and wade into the 2018 midterm election endorsement fray, much to the consternation of her parents and management team. “What if I told you I had a great idea how to halve the number of people who come to your shows?” her father asks, incredulously.
“Miss Americana” is at heart a coming of age story about growing up in public.
“Miss Americana” is at heart a coming of age story about growing up in public. We see Swift getting panicky about pushing 30, with her friends all having babies as she wonders if slavish devotion to her career was really worth what it cost. She got everything she ever wanted but now worries that may have been wanting the wrong things. This stuff most people face as they get older but few have to do under the microscope of a pushy press inside a worldwide celebrity fishbowl.
I was surprised by how much I liked spending time with Taylor in this movie. She’s got a down-to-earth sense of humor about the insane life she leads, whether casually kidding about the throngs of fans camped out on her front lawn, or comparing stalkers with Urie during the film’s most off-handedly upsetting scene. Swift is also shockingly frank about her eating issues, upfront about shame spirals induced by unflattering paparazzi photos and a couple of times can be caught ripping into her own appearance with some blistering self-critiques that don’t sound entirely healthy.
“Miss Americana” is itself a savvy business maneuver, positioning one of the biggest stars in the world as a comeback-hungry underdog...
What you’re not going to hear about are any of her famous exes, nor a word about her bad blood with Katy Perry. I do wish the film had touched on Swift’s brilliantly ruthless business instincts, playing hardball with Spotify and bringing Apple Music to its knees. But then I guess “Miss Americana” is itself a savvy business maneuver, positioning one of the biggest stars in the world as a comeback-hungry underdog while introducing us to a new Taylor 2.0 who cusses, disobeys her advisors and is unafraid to speak out about politics, women’s issues and anything else she damn well pleases.
The splashy Sundance premiere was a masterstroke of brand management, as was the hiring of acclaimed “After Tiller” director Lana Wilson to give the picture a gravitas far beyond that of your typical pop infomercial. Taylor Swift has been a superstar for more than half her life, and the main takeaway from “Miss Americana” is just how skilled she’s become at it.
“Miss Americana” begins streaming on Netflix Friday, Jan. 31.