At the outset of the first screening of the documentary “Miss Americana” Thursday night at the Sundance Film Festival, it was clear at the outset that it was not necessarily Taylor Swift’s core audience filling the Eccles Theater for the premiere. The opening scene has Swift trying to write a song at the piano while one of her cats walks across the keys. When that occurs as the film hits theaters next Friday, it’ll draw appreciative screams from the Olivia Benson- and Meredith Grey-loving faithful. Here? Not so much, except for a few younger fans who got into the balcony’s back rows via the standby line.
But when the doc starts the take a more political turn about two-thirds of the way through, documenting Swift finding her voice as an outspoken advocate and activist, that’s when the Sundance audience started to sound a little more like her core demo, at least in short, loud bursts of appreciative whoops and hollers.
The most critical scene in the film has Swift trying to convince the men in her camp that it’s important that she step up and make an endorsement for the Democrats in Tennessee’s gubernatorial and senatorial elections. When one of them warns that the president could come after her, and she emotionally declares that she’s fine with that, it was if she’d just launched into a surprise version of “All Too Well” in concert. (Donald Trump does eventually respond by saying he likes Swift’s music 25% less since she laid into the White House for working against passage of the Equality Act.)
Afterward, Swift and director Lana Wilson came out for a 15-minute Q&A, discussing how they first met through Netflix — which will release the film for streaming day-and-date with its theatrical run Jan. 31 — and how their rapport developed.
“We started the process not really knowing if we were going to end up with a documentary — it was just sort of like: Let’s film, let’s see what you see,” Swift said. “And this was completely in her hands. And I really appreciate all the hours we talked. Those interviews — there were a lot of hours that she had to hear me talk about my feelings.”
Added the singer, “I think one of the things about you is that for so much of my life in the public eye, when I get sad or upset or humiliated or angry or go through a really horrible time, I feel people lean in with like this hunger. And you never did that to me. And that was what made me feel okay about feeling sadness, anger, humiliation around you, because I felt like when I got sad, you did too. And so it made all of that all right. It didn’t make me feel like, ‘Oh, she feels like she’s got a good part for a movie now.’ And I really want to thank you for that.”
Wilson extolled the scene in which Swift explains her imminent political coming-out to her worried family and members of her team. Said the filmmaker, “The scene where you discussed with your team and family that political endorsement, it’s so powerful because of the politics, but also because it’s watching you with the people who love you the most in the world, saying, ‘You know, I love you. You’re looking out for my best interests, but I have to disagree and do things my own way.’ That’s a moment that’s so many of us have experienced in our lives at one point or another, and I thought it was so powerful as this coming of age event, and the profound ending of this multilayered process you went through to lead you into that decision.”
Swift explained the dynamics that went into that tense and emotional meeting. “My dad has always just been so terrified about my safety since I was a kid,” she said. “The fact that my job entails standing on a stage and, you know, there’s so many threats we get on a daily basis, but nobody ever knows about. And we try to keep that stuff under wraps as much as possible, but my dad is the one who has to see it. And so for him it was all about, ‘What could happen to you if you say this? Is my daughter in danger? And is this the moment when I should have stopped it from happening?’
“I had been speaking to my mom so much about it, and she went through the trial with me in Denver, which was a really horrible experience to have.” [Swift prevailed in a lawsuit in which she alleged sexual assault, having been groped by a radio DJ at a meet-and-greet.] And I had all the privilege in the world and financial support and the ability to pay for a brilliant lawyer. And I won that trial, but without all that, I don’t know what would have happened. So it taught me so much and, and it was the women in my life who were there every single day going into court. You know, our political opinions are defined by what happens to us in our life. So that was one of the things that happened to me in my life, and seeing what’s happening in my home state, and then it all culminating and having to have a conversation with people who have been so wonderfully supportive of me through my entire career, feeling so afraid for my safety. And it’s a really real moment for me to watch that back.”
Things got lighter with the last question, as the moderator asked: “I want to know where Meredith, Olivia, and Benjamin are at this very moment while the world premiere of your film has been happening.”
“Well, they’re right in the back row. Just right up there,” she said, looking to the balcony as the crowd turned its collective necks. This was deadpan. “No, they’re not here. I wish they were, but unfortunately they don’t care about anything that I do. But I love them so much. Detective Olivia Benson and Dr Meredith Gray and Benjamin Button — the loves of my life. Thank you for asking about them. I will tell them. They will not care, but I do.”