In its earliest moments, Demi Lovato’s new documentary series looks familiar and even comforting to fans of the genre of backstage concert confessionals. We see Lovato doing a pre-show cheer with her backup dancers, performing framed by massive screens of her own face, sleeping on the jet, racing from quick-change to quick-change. Throughout, she is too much a pro to betray any emotion beyond anticipation of what well-rehearsed step lies ahead. These beats are as familiar to the music-doc connoisseur as are any of Lovato’s songs, and they’re only really notable when they’re subverted — like in the masterful 2012 film “Katy Perry: Part of Me,” in which the “Firework” singer, having just been informed that her marriage is over, weeps backstage before forcing herself into the pneumatic tube that leads to the stage and painting a grin on.
“Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil,” a four-episode series made for YouTube, ends up making a similar case — that behind the simple smile lays a complex torment — with a bluntness that feels outright shocking. With apologies to Perry and her ilk, it’s hard to recall another musician, or any other recent celebrity, who’s been as open about as much personal upheaval as has Lovato, who emerged as a big-voiced child performer and whose pop music career has closely tracked the evolution of her emotional and physical wellness. Onscreen titles inform us that the in-control, tactically charismatic entertainer we see at first was filmed for a planned concert documentary in 2018, shortly before Lovato (who has since re-emerged and restarted her music career) was hospitalized for a life-threatening drug overdose. The footage is now put to use through contrast — to show what Lovato, then, was able to hide, and to suggest that, now, she’s found an easier way of living with herself.
Lovato had been preparing a major return in 2020, with performances at the Super Bowl and, tearfully delivering a song about seeking and not finding help, at the Grammys. Further appearances were pre-empted by COVID, and, speaking to the cameras in isolation, Lovato is reflective and ready to talk. “FYI,” she declares to someone off-camera, and into the camera’s lens, “I’m just going to say it all, and if we don’t want to use it, we can take it out.” It’s hard to imagine what, precisely, the production team, which includes both director Michael D. Ratner and Lovato’s own manager Scooter Braun, didn’t want to use, as we learn more about Lovato than we might have expected even from a relatively very open public figure. We are told first about the nature of her 2018 relapse, that Lovato, after openly beginning to drink again, had been concealing hard drug use on the road even from intimates. This was a slip for which her team — who went to bed nightly, her head of security tells us, expecting an overnight bad-news call — had been planning for a long time, brought on by the pressures of the road and those within Lovato. We go on to learn about what those pressures were.
As we collectively re-evaluate our society’s treatment of young female entertainers, there’s something especially painful about Lovato’s weary tone as she, for instance, describes the aftermath of a rape she alleges happened in her teen years, when she was known for early musical efforts and the Disney Channel “Camp Rock” films with the Jonas Brothers. This is a story she hasn’t told us before, but one conveyed in a voice that suggests Lovato’s been reliving it herself, on a painful loop, for years. Lovato speaks about her alleged date rape this way: “We were hooking up but I said — hey, this is not going any farther, I’m a virgin, and I don’t want to lose it this way. And that didn’t matter to them, they did it anyways. And I internalized it and I told myself it was my fault because I still went in the room with him.”
Lovato goes on to say that, after the incident, “I had to see this person all the time,” and coped with self-harm including cutting and bulimia; her appeals to authority for help resolving the situation, she says, went unnoticed. “My MeToo story,” she tells us now, “is me telling somebody that someone did this to me and they never got in trouble for it. They never got taken out of the movie they were in. But I’ve just kept it quiet because I’ve always had something to say, and I’m tired of opening my mouth, so there’s the tea.”
The comeback-launching ballad Lovato sang at last year’s Grammys included the lyric “I feel stupid when I sing / Nobody’s listening to me,” which might have felt slightly off at the time, given the magnitude of the stage on which Lovato delivered it. Now, it clicks into place. It’s easier for a culture that’s skeptical at best of the young women who entertain us to see Lovato as having endured vice rather than predation, having been nearly destroyed by some perceived weakness within her instead of a structural crisis overwhelming girls in and out of the entertainment industry.
The tragic element of Lovato’s story is twofold: There were things she wanted to say about which she wasn’t heard, and things she might have rather left unsaid that she was compelled to address over and over. The pain of private struggle was amplified by having to perform the crisis in public. In 2018, she was not just a singer but a person visibly committed to clean living, with wince-inducing footage of DJ Khaled boisterously announcing her six-year sober anniversary onstage at a concert — a celebration of a role as poster child that, as Lovato’s sister tells us, Lovato didn’t necessarily want to assume. Footage of Lovato’s fans tattooed with her lyrics and describing her remarkable impact upon their lives suggests just how heavy the sobriety chip may have felt in her hand. Fluctuations in her body shape, monitored by a team that served her frosted watermelon in place of cake on her birthday, forced an endless conversation that left Lovato feeling uneasy and unprotected. And as a child star, Lovato, like peers including Kevin, Joe, and Nick Jonas, wore a “promise ring” as a commitment to remain chaste until marriage, a symbol that grew increasingly ironic: “So what,” she asks us, “I’m supposed to come out to the public after saying I have a promise ring? Six months later, I’m supposed to say, well I had sex — even though it was rape? Some people aren’t going to see it that way.” The words of the young teen Lovato, edited into this present-day testimonial, echo troublingly throughout this recounting: “I’ve become more aware of life and people and the way that the business works,” the child tells an interviewer who asks what she learned between filming “Camp Rock” and “Camp Rock 2.”
That awareness has, in Lovato’s present-day career, manifested itself in teaching her how to give her fans a portion of the unvarnished truth while, evidently, keeping a great deal inside. In 2018, Lovato took the stage nightly and put forward a confident, steady image that had little in common with how she actually felt. Now, Lovato shares information in a torrent. It’s a welcome shift away from the enforced silences around stars like Britney Spears, to be sure, but also a challenging and emotionally demanding viewing experience, one that lacks the time or space that would allow certain key revelations to land. In the final half-hour episode, for instance, we are informed that Lovato is once again using substances in supervised moderation; that she believes her diagnosis of bipolar disorder was imposed upon her incorrectly and unfairly; that she takes injections to blunt the potential effect of opioids; and that, after a broken engagement, she considers herself “too queer to marry a man in my life right now.”
It’s this last shift in Lovato’s life — that, during quarantine, she began and ended an engagement — that suggests just how much even a voluble celebrity avoids sharing. Post-breakup, the camera crew reminds Lovato that she had only recently told them “I got engaged… It was just the best day of my life. I felt like I was floating.” Given time to reflect, Lovato says “I think I rushed into something that I thought was what I was supposed to do.” That these shifts in Lovato’s feelings happened over the course of what she estimates as four or five months is deeply human. And that she’d previously been so effusive to the camera about this relationship as part of a silence-breaking project raises questions of what else she’s doing because she thinks it’s what she’s supposed to do, what else she’s said here that she may evolve on later. A period of dynamic change is incredibly fertile territory for an artist, but may also be a time at which her management might have been wiser to allow for some protected sphere of genuine privacy within the say-everything ethos.
Another topic of contention here is the concept of moderation as a means of recovery, which the documentary advises in a warning before the fourth episode “may not be right for everyone.” Elton John, brought in as a character witness for Lovato’s artistry, tells the camera that it simply doesn’t work. Lovato’s manager Braun, as executive producer, has more of a hand in this project’s final form than Lovato, as suggested by the segment in which Lovato is asked to tell us why, exactly, her consigliere’s guidance has been important to her. He says, as if to convey to his client a message within a project bearing her name in the title, that he does not “truly agree” with Lovato’s decision to use alcohol and marijuana. “What I can do,” he says, “is be a friend and hope that she’s right.”
By the end of the series, the viewer is left in the same place. Lovato seems — to the observer placed in the uncomfortable position of evaluating — like a well person, and not merely because she talks a lot about how well she is. Indeed, it’s a sign of how together she’s finally allowed to be that she can talk about other things. (“I was thinking about the music that’s out there right now, and I was like, why isn’t anyone talking about what’s happening?,” she tells the talk-show host Seth Meyers, in describing her own newly political music. It’s a sheltered person’s tentative step towards connecting with the world outside her bubble, and a strangely moving one.)
Again and again, Lovato tells us that it was the restrictions against her that made her feel most urgently that she needed to act out — with the implication that, under new management that lets her speak and perform on something resembling her own terms, she’s turned the page. Viewers will hope that’s true, and not just because Lovato, having come so close to death in pushing back against being seen as a very particular sort of victim, deserves to live a happy, healthy, and long life. She also deserves to be able to speak and to sing about whatever is on her mind, even and especially if it’s about the future and not the past. Lovato has made a lot of her dreams come true, and she’s done so with a relapse or a recovery perpetually the first thing many of her listeners recall. That so much weight has been lifted from Lovato’s chest will hopefully be good for her, and productive for a culture that could use more data points about what we’re doing to young women. But this new climate in which openness is welcome has to include the possibility of real retreat, as well. If Braun, Lovato, and an audience hungry for downfall can mutually allow it, this singer deserves to use that powerful voice of hers to do something other, and something greater, than simply defending herself.
All episodes of “Demi Lovato: Dancing with the Devil” premiered virtually at the SXSW Film Festival on March 16. The first two episodes will appear on YouTube March 23, with the remaining two episodes appearing weekly thereafter.