It’s lonely at the top. Nobody knows it better than Taylor Swift. The country-turned-pop star, girl-next-door, singer-songwriter extraordinaire reveals her behind-the-scenes life in what seems to be the only form of media she hasn’t touched: documentary. Of course, Swift’s rise to fame is covered in the generic montage format a celebrity documentary can be expected to have, but the pops of vulnerability of the star’s thoughts and inner working will leave fans and critics alike to contemplate the most candid version of Swift to hit the media so far.
A woman of many faces and phases
Taylor has circled from adoration to hate and back again in her indisputably successful career. From her blossoming as the curly-haired, guitar-strumming teenager singing love ballads on Fearless, to the 2009 VMA acceptance speech steal by Kanye West, to her recent emergence as a democratic supporter in the Nashville Senate race, and finally to the release of her two alternative folk albums of 2020–uncharted territory for Swift.
Despite all of her success, Swift’s striving hits you hard and fast
She lays out her moral code before the title even rolls across the screen. “…a need to be thought of as good…it was the complete and total belief system I subscribed to [as a kid].”
“I’d been trained to be happy when you get a lot of praise,” she continues as she flips through pages of diaries from her youth, one of which lists the career aspirations that she penned at the ripe age of thirteen. “I was so fulfilled by approval that…that was it.”
That was it. That is it. Taylor’s driving quest seems to be to reach the peak of the never-ending climb toward total adoration. Total goodness. It is easy to imagine the satisfaction of performing to crowds of thousands, the sounds of their praise overflowing your cup. But what happens when the adoration turns to contempt? When the foundation of your self-esteem comes from the fickle approval of strangers? Swift learns the hard way.
When the 2018 Grammy nominations are announced, Taylor lounges on the couch in pink sweats and velvet socks, alone aside from the company of the camera filming from below and her cat who perches next to her. When her manager informs her that her comeback album, Reputation, wasn’t nominated for any category, she swallows–a hard hit. The pain sits on her face. She visibly holds back tears. There is no one to share this moment with. Instead of expressing any outwardly pointed unhappiness, Taylor sets her jaw and simply says, “that’s fine; I need to make a better record.”
Her self-criticism spirals out of control with the confession of her eating disorder that stemmed from incessantly picking apart photos and reading the plethora of negative headlines written about her. Her dismantling comes with the release of a secretly recorded conversation between her and Kanye which reveals that she knew of his song, “Famous”, in which he calls her a b***h, something she originally denied having any previous knowledge of. The media overwhelmingly turns on her. #TaylorSwiftisOverParty is the number one trending hashtag on Twitter globally. For someone who has built her life on praise, this blow could have been the straw that broke her. However, after a period of nursing her bitterness, she slashes back with Reputation, which may have lost Grammy nominations, but gave Taylor her voice back.
On a more lighthearted note, the film shows Taylor, with various collaborators, creating music seemingly out of thin air, as the lyrics flow from her lips with little effort. There is no doubt that storytelling is her superpower. Seeing the process is unsurprising–Swift is a lyrical genius and watching her create is somehow the least captivating part of the documentary.
Something bigger than herself
We see her metamorphosis from apolitical to political with her decision to take a stand in support of Tennessee Democrat Phil Bredesen in the 2018 midterms, much to her PR team’s dismay. With a strong republican fanbase, they speculate that this will anger a lot of her supporters. Taylor stands strong and adamant against their advice; this is the most intense and passionate Taylor we see yet, one who seems to have bloomed into someone who no longer hinges themself on being liked. She is finally willing to walk into sure criticism in return for standing up for what she truly believes. It is a refreshing step of growth. “It really is a big deal to me,” she says, voice breaking. Finally, Taylor has found something worthy of tear shed, something bigger than herself.
Still, as personal as this film is, we still swim on the surface of Taylor Swift. Her beloved mother, Andrea, has cancer which is rarely discussed. Her romances are omitted, though arguably so, as they have been the most talked-about aspect of her career. We are left with a clearer picture of who Taylor is, yet still yearning to know more, to look a little deeper. Perhaps this is the air of mystery still needed for her reinventions to come.
Taylor is a deeply complicated, multifaceted entertainer who is sure to keep surprising us. Lana Wilson captured a woman in her downfall and subsequent rebuild, leaving us with questions of where she is to go from here. Let’s hope she continues to let us in.