The World's a Little Blurry: Billie Eilish Documentary Review

 

Last night I curled up on the couch to spend 2.5 hours with Billie Eilish and her family through her new documentary on Apple TV+. R.J. Cutler directed the documentary that follows over three years of Billie's life from getting her learners permit to becoming an adult. The film takes you into her childhood home and around the world. It offers a zoomed in look about what it means to be famous as well as what it means to be a teenager right now. I think something so many people miss is that just because Billie is a famous teenager, it doesn't mean she's immune to the pitfalls of that age. I'm just slightly younger than Billie, so I related to so much of what she went through in the documentary, even more than I anticipated. 

I walked into this movie from a perspective that's probably a bit different than the Billie Eilish stans or the people who had a casual, passing interest in Billie from seeing her name in headlines. I'm actually much more of a fan of Finneas, Billie's brother, songwriter, and producer than Billie herself, though I respect her a lot. Finneas's solo work just happens to fit my personal music taste more, and I loved listening to his podcast with his girlfriend, Claudia, back when that was a thing. I'd actually seen a lot of the events in the movie like Coachella and the Grammy's through Claudia's lens as she vlogged them for her YouTube channel. I've learned quite a bit about Billie through following those close to her, but I never felt like I fully understood her from her own point of view. While this documentary is through Cutler's lens, it was still interesting to get a closer look at Billie herself. I wound up taking a ridiculous number of notes while watching the documentary because there was just so much that resonated with me. The documentary definitely delivers on honesty and not flinching away from hard moments. While their family dynamics and a lot of Billie's life has already been publicized from her status as a pop superstar, there's a difference between hearing about it and seeing it in real time. I watched it with my parents, neither of whom really got the hype around Billie Eilish, but I think the doc gave both of them a new appreciation for her. 

Parents Are Key For Child Stars

If you know anything about Billie Eilish, you've probably heard she was homeschooled by two creative parents who cultivated her and Finneas's talents from a young age. Everything in Billie's career has always been done as a unit. Her brother is her first and only producer and co-writer, her dad works on her touring crew building sets, and her mom is glued to her side through everything. 

The importance of that point gets driven home through multiple scenes in the movie. At one point, Billie, a member of her team, and her mom discuss the pros and cons of releasing Billie's song "Xanny". It's one of my favorites on the album, so it was surprising to hear how close it was to not making the cut. But the team member brings up the point that Billie might not want to come out so strongly against drugs in her music in case she changes her mind later in life. The internet will be the first to point out the hypocrisy. Billie recognizes this and considers it while her mom rejects the idea outright. She argues that they've carefully built a team and a world around Billie so she won't feel compelled to go down that path. 

Maggie builds on this later when she talks about Justin Bieber and how he's always been a central part of Billie's life. She mentions how no one in her house was ever anti-Bieber, but she does think about his path as a child-star quite a bit. At one point she says something along the lines of "he screwed up and got better and screwed up again", but he didn't have the same support system Billie has. I'm going to be honest and say that I don't like Justin Bieber, but I do find him fascinating. And I do feel bad for him. While there are about a million better choices he could've made, like Maggie notes, he didn't have positive role models or parents protecting him on his rise to fame. The fact that his de facto parent since he was around twelve was Scooter Braun kinda tells you everything you need to know about the situation. 

Towards the end of that conversation, Maggie makes one last point that I think sums up the entire situation. She points out that they've worked hard to hire the right people who love Billie like she's their own child, but no one that you hired will ever be able to care for the complete needs of the teen like their parent can. I think Bieber's story highlights how deep that ulterior motive can run in those situations. Even in Bieber's original doc, you watch Scooter pushing Justin into performing even when he's sick, his throat is destroyed, and the doctor is telling him it's dangerous. It's a sharp contrast to how Maggie conducts Billie's career. They don't always make the right choices for and around Billie's life the first time, but Maggie's always the first to pull the plug or demand a change when Billie's physical or mental health is being risked. 

Billie's Personal Experiences with Fandom Impact How She Views Her Own Fans 

From the opening scene of the movie it's made explicitly clear just how deeply Billie loves her fans. She runs straight to them and throws herself into their outstretched, grabbing hands. She takes the flowers they've brought her, and she'll hold a fan for minutes while they cry to her. At shows, she stands up on the barricade and melts into the crowd. It's clear how much trust she puts in them as she physically surrenders herself to them in a way that honestly looks a little terrifying. She never looks annoyed or angry or upset as they reach out for her hands or grab her arms, and it's a sharp contrast to later in the doc when she's forced to mix with older industry people who just "want a picture with Billie Eilish". It's clear she's already well aware of the line between her fans and the love they have for her and the people who want to use her name as a cool party story. She refuses to even call them fans and instead tries to hold them as her peers. They're people who feel like she's voicing and giving light to experiences they've never found comfort for. She knows that's the wonderful power of music and how much love that can create for the person holding the mic offering that comfort. 

I also think a lot of her relationship with her fans stem from her time deep, deep in the Justin Bieber fandom. It's no secret that Billie grew up loving Justin Bieber. At one point she talks about how she used to be scared that she could never love anyone as much as she loved Justin and that no one would ever be better than the version of him she spent so long mentally dating. It's an interesting point by itself because I often wonder how real life people will ever live up to the romanticized versions I create in my head. Interestingly, Justin Bieber becomes a major sub-plot of the documentary as he wants to work with her, they meet at Coachella, and he sends her a really sweet note. As an ironic double narrative to her crappy boyfriend, Bieber is actually super sweet, attentive, and caring as Billie has a complete fangirl moment when they met at Coachella. Seeing the way he patiently holds her and strokes her hair as she hugs him for full minutes made it impossible not to like Justin in that moment. This documentary actually made Justin more compelling than either of his own, but I also have to wonder if that's because we're viewing him through Billie's eyes for a minute. We get to experience an ounce of that nostalgic fangirl love that holds over to this day. Finneas points out on the car ride home that Billie knows exactly how Justin probably felt in the moment they met, watching Billie freak out in front of him. 

It was a sweet reminder that fandom never really ends, and it's refreshing to see how she uses her past and connection to that world to better understand how people feel when they can't quite find the words in her presence. 

Billie Is Going to Execute All of Her Visions Exactly How She Sees Them In Her Head

Another point that was documented early on is just how much follow through Billie has. It's proof of how much work it takes to get where she is. She shows the camera a sketchbook at the start of the film and says she wants to do "something with wings" (see the "All The Good Girls Go To Hell" video) and then describes the "When The Party's Over" video with the black liquid. That bleeds into a scene of Billie using her mom as a stand-in to show the director exactly how she wants the video to work as her dad cleans up the backyard in the background. At the end of the real video shoot, Billie remarks that she's always going to direct her own video from here on out. Her visions are precise, and she's a perfectionist with them. That's why she's so good. 



Also, she's willing to go through pain in the name of her art. The tubes pushed some amount of black goo into her eyes for the video and she drank the black liquid for the sake of the video. She refused to stop jumping at shows even though her legs started to literally crumble under her. At one point she remarks that she'd rather not do a show than to do it half-assed. It's that level of attentiveness that makes a good artist- but it also can be what ultimately destroys them. 

Finneas Is The Logical Center

Billie is bursting with ideas, visions, and bold, aesthetic choices. She loves singing and performing and interacting with fans. She's the ultimate face of an artist. But she doesn't seem to love the process of creating the songs to get there. That's where Finneas comes in. He doesn't want the attention and he doesn't seem to love many of the more musically removed aspects of being an artist, but he loves songwriting and he's an incredibly talented producer. He's also more grounded in reality. Billie wants to just make the art she wants to make while Finneas thinks about the charts, the label, the radio, how songs will hit and be perceived. As Billie criticizes herself in recording sessions, he reminds her of her strengths, and he manages the timetable, even when Billie thinks it's impossible to meet a deadline. They truly make 2 halves of a super artist, which is really what they've become. 

One of my favorite scenes in the doc comes from one of their creative arguments because it really defines the push and pull that's constantly happening in the music industry. They're truly getting at what the value of making music for everyone vs making it for a very specific person. Finneas is irritated because he's trying to write the pop hit that Interscope wants. He clearly wants to prove to them that he can deliver it, but Billie isn't cooperating. He wants to make a song that's more "accessible" which becomes a major flashpoint. Billie doesn't want to be accessible and doesn't see a point in it. And it makes sense on one hand. Her brand works because it's different, and she's amassed a major audience that identify with her niche. She's already making good music. But good music and good music for radio are on two entirely different planet. That's where Finneas's emphasis on "accessibility" comes in. Radio hits need to be simple, universally relatable, and easy to sing along to. Finneas defines it as "a song that doesn't alienate anyone for any reason". Honestly, this seems like a losing battle considering people find Billie's music compulsively polarizing for its honesty, and there's a reason that the album didn't really have a radio hit outside of "Bad Guy". 

As the argument escalates, they also get to the heart of the danger of working with a sibling. Billie proclaims, "I HATE songwriting. Especially with you because you're so good at it." It's hard to logically work with your sibling, who is born to be your biggest cheerleader and antagonist. Finneas also has a rather illuminating line in the session muttering, "I'm trying to write the best song you've ever written". And I think these exchanges provide an interesting insight into the nuances of how their super-artist relationship works. 

Her Body As Her Worst Enemy

Billie experiences a lot of physical pain over the course of the documentary. All the jumping on her constant tours wears on her joints and ligaments, and she gets injured frequently. At multiple points in time she struggles to walk. It's painful to watch. While there are therapies and treatments to try to help, I think the entire process is just demoralizing for Billie, and she's scared that her body is going to cost her her career again, just like when she had to stop dancing because she tore her growth plate. One of her most striking and painful quotes from the documentary comes from this section, "Everything I've ever loved I've had to quit". 

Showing Tourettes Fully

Billie has talked openly in interviews about living with Tourettes syndrome, but I don't think it's something people really understand until they watch it happen. Billie coping with it is shown throughout the documentary. It's clear how it gets worse when she's anxious or stressed. They show it so honestly and openly as it happens while she's going through her list of daily tasks. It's completely normal for her and something in life she simply has to deal with, and I think the way it's shown in the doc will go a long way towards destigmatizing Tourettes. 

I also think it's a good reminder of how much artists are dealing with beyond their jobs. In the scene I mentioned earlier where she's forced to go greet a ton of unspecified industry people, she'd just come off stage, is clearly tired, and her ticks start. It's so clear how badly she just wants to be left alone, and it's heartbreaking to watch her deal with everything at once. Tourettes is something that I think is fundamentally misunderstood by so many people, and I hope Billie's openness here will help. 

Even Teens in Supportive Situations End Up in Toxic Relationships

One of the sub-plots of the doc follows Billie's relationship with this guy named Q. We don't really see much of him. Mostly, it's just Billie fretting over her phone about him. Early in the documentary, we watch her face fall as he tells her he drove home drunk. He stands her up at Coachella and is nowhere to be found when she wants comfort after she wasn't happy with her performance. It's clear from the outside he was being awful to her from the start, but when you're the one in it, it's much harder to see that. Also, media loves to push the idea of "fixing" someone, as hard and dangerous as that can be. I think so many people cling to that idea, even when it hurts them. Billie had fame, a supportive family, and 80 million people who would happily drop everything to hang out with her, and she still got torn up by this guy's nonsense. I think it showcased really excellently how easy it is to fall into toxic relationships as a teen, even when you're Billie Eilish. 

You Never Get a Bad Moment 

One of the most compelling storylines from the lens of Billie as a celebrity is a conversation in the car with her mom after she reads a comment where a fan said she was rude or dismissive. She feels awful about it, and she doesn't want anyone to have that experience with her. You can see it actually hurts her. I think every artist has had this experience at least once. When everyone is reaching out their hand for you, you can't give everyone an amazing experience. You don't want to smile all the time. Many artists deal with anxiety, depression, or maybe they're just having an off day. We all have off days, and people need to remember that when they meet celebrities and artists. I've been lucky enough to meet a handful of artists I love. On the whole, they've been magical experiences, but there have been a few less than stellar occasions. I always chalk it up to the artist being tired or maybe having a bit of anxiety. I don't understand people who blame the artist and make it seem like they don't care about their fans. 

Being a Teen Today Is Harder Than Ever

If I had to pick one theme for the documentary, it would be the teens are depressed. It's constantly showcased and addressed. Maggie talks about it for a minute in one of her solo interviews. She discusses how we're growing up in a toxic political climate full of so much hate, so few resources, and a planet that's quite literally dying in front of our eyes. My friends and I sometimes wonder aloud how long into our adult lives the planet will be livable, and we have to watch older generations dismiss an issue that is very likely coming to kill us because it won't be their problem. When she listed off reasons, there wasn't even COVID and that isolation to take into account. She ends it addressing the biggest critique of Billie's music, "People say she writes depressing music, but the truth is, teens today are depressed". There are plenty of statistics to prove that. And someone in charge needs to figure out how to release the pressure valve before we all explode. 

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