SXSW 2021 review: ‘Alone Together’ shines a light on Charli XCX’s creative process

At the start of quarantine many of us (myself included) held ourselves to an impossible standard of productivity. There was this shared understanding that if we were to have all of this newfound time spent at home and away from the community we’d typically immerse ourselves in, we might as well do something “important” with that time. Be it really settling in to work on writing or discovering new skill sets ranging from bread baking and needlepoint sewing to soap making, there was this expectation that we couldn’t just do nothing, because then this time that we were all losing would truly have been lost. Luckily, hopefully, many of us learned that level of self-expectation and security couldn’t be sustained over the amount of the time we were expected to self-isolate and began to accept the fact that some days all we could really do was embrace the couch potato lifestyle. Also luckily for us, some creative types didn’t get that memo, as demonstrated in music documentary Alone Together which documents popstar Charli XCX as she sets forth in the early days of quarantine to create her new collaborative album how I’m feeling now

Secluded with her boyfriend and two managers, director duo Bradley Bell and Pablo Jones-Soler (better known as Bradley&Pablo), who previously worked with her on some of her music videos, reached out to her when she began posting about the album plans online, looking to create a more substantial capsule at the creative process. Running at just over an hour, the documentary deals with three different components. There’s the process of actually making the album, Charli’s struggles with her mental health shared through confessional diary entries, and the lives of her fans who she’s formed a special connection with. Some aspects work better than others, though the heartfelt sincerity behind every moment helps sand down the frustration of what could have been’s if only the film had more time. 

The strongest aspects of the film are the captured moments of DIY style album writing, with Charli taking a hands on approach after having felt stilted and unsatisfied with her career. Alone Together works to show the behind the scenes pieces from writing song lyrics with the aid of fans or going through multiple takes to create the layered effect in “anthems.” Everything from the music video shoots of singles “claws” and “enemy” to the retro styled album cover has her distinct personality stamped all over it, and while due to her own broadcasting during the creation which inspired fan contributions we aren’t left totally surprised by this, as fans it’s yet another way of lowering the barrier between fan and artist. 

The problem is that we required more of the creation of the album. It’s understandable that the direction of the film tried to tell as great a story it could, especially within the parameters of COVID, and the documentary makes sure to highlight that throughout all of this mental health is struggling. To greater effect, they take stories from young fans—many of whom are LGBTQ+—who have used either Charli’s music as a means of escape and how many of them are either cut off from the outlets that gave them access to self-expression or in lockdown with family who hasn’t been entirely accepting of their sexual identity. While at times awkwardly edited and a little too jarringly separate from the goings-ons of the recording, it does champion the idea of music as being a communal means of escape and something that, while not totally lost, has become increasingly diminished as live shows are no longer reliable as realistic options. 

It is that idea which the narrative seems to want to lean into but never committed to fully. Yes it’s about being a creative type in lockdown and a pop-star on the rise reestablishing herself presented alongside raw and honest portraits of people who are struggling with mental illness in a time that feeds into it. But more than anything else it leans into its namesake, that while we’re all isolated and even though we can’t congregate like we once did, we still have music as a binding link that we can share and experience together. Alone Together doesn’t exactly stick the landing on this message but it’s one that is potent enough to carry us through. In Almost Famous, when talking about her friends dealing with hard times, Penny Lane says that whenever someone is lonely they can “go to the record store and visit your friends.” We may not all be swarming public places but that sentiment will keep living on – throughout it all, we at least have music to keep us above water.

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