Fly-on-the-wall portraits of pop-music stars used to be dominated by, you know, pop music. The life and personality and woe-is-me-I’m-caught-in-the-media-fishbowl spectacle of the star herself were part of the equation, yet all those things had a way of dancing around the edges. Now, though, they’re front and center. In “Taylor Swift: Miss Americana,” we catch glimpses of the 30-year-old pop supernova as she struts onstage in fire-engine-red lipstick and outfits that seem to have been carved out of glitter. We see her as she greets weeping fans in Tokyo, and in the studio with the producer Joel Little, where she noodles away at the piano and nails down the hook of a song like “ME!”
Yet in “Miss Americana,” it’s the verité psychodrama of the personal and private Taylor Swift, cuddling up to the piano with her cat, that dominates. The way to execute a movie like this one began to shift around the time of Madonna’s “Truth or Dare,” which was, in fact, a splendid concert film, yet the most memorable aspect of it was the backstage soap opera of Madonna taking off her public mask only to indulge in a different kind of performance. “Truth or Dare” came out a year before the premiere of MTV’s “The Real World,” and 30 years of reality TV later the instinct for self-dramatization, even in the most seemingly unfiltered and intimate moments, is now second nature — in pop stars, and maybe in all of us.
That’s why “Miss Americana” is something of a paradox. Watching the movie, you know you’re getting a controlled and sanded-off confection of pop-diva image management, one that’s going to leave anything too dark or messy or random on the cutting-room floor. At the same time, the things we do see ring true. In “Miss Americana,” the vision Taylor Swift presents of herself is just sincere enough to lure us in.
Directed by Lana Wilson (“After Tiller”), the movie was made for Netflix, and like the 2017 Netflix documentary “Gaga: Five Foot Two” it’s a lively and revealing once-over-lightly portrait — in this case, of the 15-year journey that Swift has made, from big-haired teenage country singer to bedazzling mistress of the pop world, dominating the charts and the concert-arena hordes with her hooky songcraft and electric stage presence. Her career has been a meteor, and she has guided its fiery trajectory since she was a kid. Yet she has her demons and doubts (not to mention her public spats), and they lend “Miss Americana” its most compelling dimensions.
Early on, Swift talks about how she grew up wanting to be the “good girl,” and how that translated, in her country-music days, into craving the adoration of fans, always wanting that pat on the head. Then we cut to 2018, when she’s lolling on her couch, waiting for her manager to call the morning the Grammy nominations are announced. She has already won (twice) for album of the year, but on this particular day, her 2017 album “Reputation” mostly gets snubbed. And though she tries to play it down, she’s visibly distraught. No star as big as Swift should care this much about the Grammys, yet she’s still an addict for approval. Will she ever get over it? That, in its way, is the drama of the movie. “Miss Americana” tells the story of a young star of singular self-esteem who must learn to grow up and become a mature pop star of even more awesome self-esteem.
What makes it work is that Swift, off camera, is a paradox herself: a humane and crunchy diva who has an instinct for taking her honest conflicts and projecting them into high drama. That’s what makes her a star. Her songs are stories that grab you and won’t let go, and in “Miss Americana” she’s telling us the story of a good girl — and, by implication, a great many good girls — who played by the rules and became successful, but got dinged along the way, because she wasn’t strong enough. We see the famous incident from 2009, when Kanye West bounded onstage at the MTV Video Music Awards, after Swift had won Best Female Video for “You Belong With Me,” and interrupted her acceptance speech by declaring, “Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time!” As loopy and indefensible as West’s action was, it was expressing the anger of a larger culture war, and Swift, who was 19 at the time, felt bulldozed. Suddenly, she was caught in a media “feud” she never asked for.
“Miss Americana” reveals other fights, like the battle with cancer that Swift’s mother is now in the middle of, or Swift’s own eating disorder (now conquered), or her decision to go public, in the Trump era, with her political beliefs, coming out against the right-wing senatorial candidate from her home state of Tennessee. She talks about how reticent she was to do it based on the experience of the Dixie Chicks, who were famously ostracized by country fans when they took a swipe at President George W. Bush after the launch of the Iraq War.
Swift still has some country stock in her fan base, so she was right to be cautious. Yet in the movie’s last act, she’s liberated by declaring her political sympathies. Of course, she’s now huge enough to get away with it. The world of politics is merely mortal. In “Miss Americana,” Taylor Swift occupies and rules the stratosphere of pop image-making, a mountaintop of the timeless.