Taylor Swift: Miss Americana (2020, dir. Lana Wilson)

Watching this film so close to release just confirms what a massive Swiftie I’ve become.

As music documentaries good, this is pretty well done. The access is surprising since pop stars of her level rarely grant it, and Lana Wilson is allowed to make her own argument about what is important to know about Taylor Swift right now.

This is also the crux of my reservations about the film. Swift’s voiceover seems to be derived from on-camera interviews with Swift, that are occasionally seen in the film. Reading any interview with Swift, there is a tension between the honest assessment of her own life, past, and career, that she is sharing with her interviewer and thus her fans, and the editorialising inherent to such an exchange.

We may not be the best people to explain our own lives. We see our pasts through the lens of who we are now, who we hope to be, and explain it in the hope of being seen sympathetically. There is certainly a value to asking Swift her perspective on her life, and great dramatic tension is utilised by playing it alongside archive material – her inner life vs how she is seen and portrayed by others.

However, the best and most revealing moments are when we see events unfolding in real-time, such as discussing and then posting her support for the Democratic candidate in Tennessee. I find documentaries centred around that sort of material the most involving.

And there are uses of voiceover that I prefer. Asif Kapadia’s technique of using a chorus of off-camera interviews is perhaps my favourite. Documentary filmmakers are inherently shaping their material, and baking in their perspective, so a voiceover from the director can also work well. It foregrounds their take on the material, but sometimes that’s warranted. (Essential if you’re more of an essay filmmaker like Adam Curtis.)

In this case, I think this film would have been better served by a lack of voiceover. Even keeping Swift’s perspective, but anchoring it in the footage of her saying it, would have worked better for me. Letting Swift own the voiveover lets Swift control the narrative. This is, of course, a major theme in the film, so it is artistically justified.

For me, the voiceover makes the whole project seem more corporate. This film is Taylor Swift, the public figure, telling me what to think about Taylor Swift, the public figure. Lana Wilson is implicitly telling me as an artist what to think about Taylor Swift through her choice of material. Since this perspective endorses and reinforces what Taylor Swift the public figure wants the audience to think about her life, and there’s no reason Wilson can’t agree with Swift’s reading of her life, it is subsumed into Swift’s narrative and becomes somewhat lost.

The Gordian knot here is to try and get a perspective on Taylor Swift the public figure from Taylor Swift the person. When your artistic aim is to attack or be contrarian, it’s incredibly easy to take anything the public figure says and edit against someone who disagrees. (It’s more difficult to do this intelligently, and not be gutter journalism.) But even when you’re sympathetic, you can’t make your interviewee reflect in the way that you want them to.

I’m very happy to believe that Taylor Swift the person truly endorses everything the public figure says in this documentary. However, we only meet the person in the more candid footage. (Let’s not get into the quantum mechanics of things changing once they are observed.) This documentary is a product from the business of a public figure, and the voiceover is the key thing that makes the film read that way too.

As an audience, we may never meet the real Taylor Swift. It’s not often we do meet the person behind the celebrity, and when we do it’s under sad circumstances, like in Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me, or it’s an idea created by the filmmaker’s use of private and archive materials, like in Cobain: Montage of Heck. I wouldn’t bet against Taylor Swift the person emerging in a documentary film some day. But this is neither the time or the film. You can catch glimpses here, but you still seem to get closest by listening to her songs.