“Alone Together,” a documentary about the creation of Charli XCX’s 2020 album “How I’m Feeling Now,” aims to show how the singer pulled together a full-fledged project last year under quarantine conditions and an arbitrarily fast, self-imposed deadline. But, in truth, the film is really the second time the album’s creation has been documented. The first came when she invited devotees to watch and weigh in on its making on a daily basis, via social media, livestreams, chat rooms and every other means a modern star can employ to make fans feel like they’re in on the action. It’s a little bit less of a “making of” than it is a love story between a woman and her fan base, with an album project-in-progress as a conduit for real-time romance.
The film has a quick preamble in pre-pandemic days, as the singer is playing to adoring throngs on an international tour at the beginning of 2020 in support of a different album that’d come out only the year before. Then California lockdown kicks in, as do widely shared fears of succumbing to anxiety, and it only takes 17 days for the British-born, now L.A.-based performer to figure out how she’s going to deal with this trip into the unknown: by making a quick follow-up album, which she’ll start, finish and release in six weeks. (Surely that’s about how long the worst of the pandemic will last, right?) But Charli won’t really be making it in isolation; she’ll be checking in with fans to reveal new ideas for the album as they pop up, small or large, and even crowdsource lyrical input as she races to the finish line under adoringly watchful eyes.
For oldsters still believing that musicians ought to retain at least a modicum of mystique, it may sound like a nightmare, having a star tell her audience “I want to play you this new idea — it’s sick,” and “Angels! I am hosting another Zoom to discuss the artwork for the album.” (“Angels” is her term for serious devotees, like Gaga’s little monsters or Mariah’s lambs.) For fans who’ve grown up with the expectation of constant virtual proximity, Charli taking that to its natural apogee here with constant windows into the creative process is, of course, a dream.
Why’s she really doing it, though? Maintenance of a fandom notwithstanding, to her credit, Charli never pretends that the first and foremost reason isn’t to do with anticipating, and staving off, quarantine depression. Yes, there’s the fun and suspense of the stunt angle of the project. A text card on screen dramatically lays out the stakes and starts the clock: “The process usually takes a year. Charli has 5 weeks.” The singer reappears to add the kicker: “Is that too scary?” Well, sure, it is… but maybe not as terrifying as heading into the abyss of quarantine alone with her thoughts. At the outset, she admits that she “really need(s) to be creative to feel comfortable and to make sure my mental health is staying on track.”
Things are complicated somewhat, though, by Charli not just wanting to record a purely escapist album but vowing there’ll be some depth to it. She’s already come up with the album title when she makes her initial announcement — suggesting that she really plans to feel all the feels — and that it’ll be largely about her relationship with her boyfriend, Huck Kwang. He’s an east coaster who’s come into L.A. to shelter in place with her for months to come, after they’d never been together for longer than 11 days at a time in their seven years of partnership. Big emotional stakes, right?
Maybe, but the film either can’t or won’t deliver on those, as we never get too in-depth an exploration of Charli’s and Kwang’s relationship developing over that time together, or any sense of whether it ever becomes a focus of the “How I’m Feeling Now” album, as promised. You’ll have to check out the (well-reviewed) record for yourself to determine how that part worked out, as we don’t hear many of the lyrics in the film. That’s not to say that the movie never gets personal — just that it never really explores whether the album she’s making does.
There’s a riveting scene in which a weeping Charli recounts a dial-in therapy session she had earlier that day in which she came to grips with feelings of worthlessness. (It’s almost shocking in its emotional vividness, but also something fans will have seen before, as she broadcast this confession live, and got a worried phone call from her mom as a result.) But real intimacy is limited by the fact directors Bradley & Pablo, making their first feature after an established career in music videos, build the 67-minute film mostly from the footage uploaded by Charli, Kwang and the singer’s two co-managers, Sam Pringle and Twiggy Rowley.
In the end, “Alone Together” is a love story — about the love between Charli and her fans. Her fan base of “angels” is largely LGBTQ+, filled with self-identified young outsiders whose joy is finding the singer a friend, mentor or mom is palpable. It’s not hard to see why they adore her, or her them. One young man from Mexico talks about how he has no friends in his town, but plenty among the community of Charli lovers. When he gets her to make a surprise appearance in one of his Zoom fan meetings, it’s as heartwarming a moment as another master of virtual fan maintenance, Taylor Swift, has engineered. There’s no need to maintain any old-school mystique, the movie convincingly argues, when she gets to be the den mother of this inclusive a clique.