Early in Miss Americana, a new Netflix documentary from director Lana Wilson (The Departure), ascendent pop star and newly-minted political activist Taylor Swift comments on how her fans tend to “grow up” with her, which she finds to be a problem because despite hitting 30, Swift admits she doesn’t really feel as “grown up” as she thinks she should.
In the same way Swift’s musical lyrics can be almost insufferably relatable, this sentiment of being stuck in time is beautifully captured throughout the documentary, which takes careful steps in and around her 15-year songwriting career, going all the way back to the performer as a 13-year-old playing local events in Tennessee and following up to her most recent album release, “Lover,” which contains the song that inspired the title of the film.
The switching around of time periods is usually presented out of order, but it’s always edited with purposeful pacing, despite the multitude of topics and detours from Swift’s real life, which rightfully inform where the central narrative is going. Celebrity feuds, political stances, and even Swift’s battles with an eating disorder are all brought to light and thoroughly discussed at length by Swift herself as omnipresent narrator, who confesses at one point that this documentary is essentially framed to be a live reading of her diary to everyone who cares to listen.
What could have been a glossy, calculating, and perhaps even image-obsessed victory lap in Miss Americana ends up being mostly the opposite. Swift cuts loose in many conversations, drops a few f-bombs, and gets authentically emotional about what she’s going through as an icon under enormous amounts of pressure, sometimes external. Some videos shown onscreen even dare to reveal a Taylor Swift without makeup on, or a Taylor Swift in pajamas.
So one has to wonder by the end why we expected any differently, or why for some that won’t be enough or maybe too little. The secret ingredient to this documentary is that it freely expresses a mantra Swift usually only articulates through either her perceived silence or, fittingly, her music. She cares what everyone thinks about her, because she’s a functioning human being, but not enough to stop. Either to stop being herself, or stop working while she’s at the top of her game, or stop hoping she’ll reach a moment where this life she’s built for herself makes a little bit of sense.
Again, she just turned 30, and a lesson she seems to have learned and subtly drops here is that eventually you care more about being known than being superficially liked. One topic Swift chooses to downplay, however, is her confessed loneliness. Swift lightly addresses the toll stardom has taken on her relationships, both romantically and platonically. The sparks of a truly cathartic documentary fizzle out whenever this topic is breezed over again, including a fascinating moment where Swift acknowledges the difficulty of having your entire life planned out too far ahead for you to leave room for making any new commitments.
There’s no doubt Miss Americana will find love from its massive audience. Fans of Swift will be thrilled to peek into her diary for a couple of hours, hear some of her great songs, and finish with the sensation of hopefully understanding the person who inspires them on a deeper level. Others who stumble upon this documentary might find it grueling to sit through the airing of problems had by a rich and powerful woman. Which is a shame because while Taylor Swift’s challenges and hardships are rare, Miss Americana makes a decent case for why it’s ok to relate with them.