I Watched the Billie Eilish Documentary So I Could Talk With My Daughter. It Worked.
It remains to be seen if Billie Eilish is a star for the ages, one who’ll enjoy an enduring career and mature before the eyes of the world, pulling young fans into adulthood with her songs as the soundtrack of their lives. But, make no mistake, Eilish is THE shining star of the present, a monumentally talented, effortlessly charismatic teenager unafraid to pout, voice her opinion, or embrace her darker angels. She is the current obsession of my 22-year-old daughter — and possibly your daughter, too. And that made this past weekend’s premiere of the Apple+ documentary, Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry, a must-watch. Jamie and I streamed it together… sort of. We texted each other a countdown to hitting play on our TV remotes and messaged back and forth throughout the documentary’s 2-hour and 20-minute running time, followed by a Facetime recap after the credits rolled.
First, some background. Jamie has always loved music: pop, indie, singer-songwriter acoustic. She took singing and guitar lessons but never followed those muses. And I, as her dad and as an entertainment journalist, always tried to stay current and understand her musical tastes. I also was the concert dad who took Jamie – and later Jamie and friends – to concerts. I chased the tickets on Ticketmaster or StubHub. And, rather than sit in the car, I’d buy a cheap seat somewhere up high at whatever venue, and catch the show. I leveraged contacts to arrange meet and greets. We’re talking Aaron Carter, Hilary Duff, Jonas Brothers, Demi Lovato, Miley Cyrus, Lukas Graham, Billy Joel. You get the idea. I snagged tickets for Jamie and her friends to see two Eilish shows in 2020, one in New York City and the other in North Carolina, the latter Eilish’s final show before the pandemic abruptly ended her tour. I admit to being sad about the Eilish shows. I kind of wanted to go. And I wanted to go with Jamie. But she’s outgrown that experience, at least for now. (NOTE from Jamie: Dad, I’d go to a Billie concert with you any day. NOTE from Dad: Awwww).This brings us back to The World’s a Little Blurry. Jamie’s flying solo in her apartment in Raleigh, and I’m at home in New Jersey, with my wife and dog. Three, two, one… the documentary starts. Eilish granted full access to filmmaker R.J. Cutler, whose cameras track Eilish – then 16 and 17 years old – as she first tastes stardom and as she collaborates with her ridiculously talented older brother/best friend, Finneas, in his childhood bedroom-turned-home studio, to record her breakthrough debut album, 2019’s “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” The documentary also trails Eilish as she tours, performing to ever-larger crowds. Video captured by Eilish’s omnipresent mother, Maggie, complements Cutler’s footage, and we see a good deal as well of Eilish’s father, Patrick, the family’s modest, lived-in house in L.A., and their dog, Pepper.
Here’s how our convo went:
“I can’t!!!!!!!!” Jamie texts a couple of minutes into the movie. “She’s SO fucking talented. And she’s no older than 16 here.”“What is it you like about her?” I text back. “Her lyrics? Her style? Her stage presence?”“All of the above,” Jamie replies. “She’s a real human who’s misunderstood by those who haven’t become invested in her story. Not to mention the pure talent in her and her brother. One thing to be dope and have a presence and be a good celebrity. But another to actually have substance in the work. They’re such artists.”Eilish is, by turns, funny, smart, bossy, modest, cranky, happy, and petulant. She freely discusses her Tourette’s. She harbors misgivings about her new music: “It’s just like everything else we’ve ever written.” Songwriting “tortures” her, especially because Finneas is so good at it. She was schooled at home, prompting a DJ to suggest she’s like Doogie Howser. “Who’s that?” Eilish asks. She can’t fathom how or why her “very dedicated niche audience” adores her. Her shows grow in scale. A reporter asks, “Are you ready for the next level of superstardom?” Eilish’s eyes bulge. “NO!” Later, she admits, “I don’t like pressure,” then adds, “I don’t feel pressure most of the time.” Backstage at a concert, Katy Perry gushes about Eilish’s talent and offers this: “This is gonna be wild for 10 years. This is gonna be weird. If you ever wanna talk…” Eilish adorably doesn’t recognize the guy with Perry. It’s Orlando Bloom.“Note the Star Trek shirt,” I text Jamie.“Oh, look at that!!!!” she replies. “Points in ur book?”“What’s ridiculous with her is how amazing her voice is,” I write. “As in just her at the mic. No sweetening.”“Nothing,” Jamie confirms. “She doesn’t autotune anything. There’s only one song out that has intentional autotune. All her songs are made with layers and layers of vocals and harmonies of her own voice… Is Mom enjoying? Is she respecting the art?”“She is,” I note. “And she’s intrigued.”
“Atta girl,” Jamie writes.
The documentary then steers into darker territory. Eilish’s journals reveal some sinister imagery and self-loathing: “I’m a void. The epitome of nothing.” She acknowledges cutting herself in the past. At Coachella, her biggest show yet, Eilish forgets the lyrics of a new song and frets that all eyes will be directed toward her instead of the massive malfunctioning screens behind her. Her mom, dad and brother try to bolster her spirits and ego, mostly to no avail. And serious boy problems, not to mention recurring shin splints and ankle issues, exacerbate the situation.“They didn’t shy away from portraying her exactly as she is,” Jamie observes.There are lighter moments, including when Eilish gets her driver’s license (cue the concerned dad speech) and when she meets her idol, crush, and imaginary husband. Eilish stans Justin Bieber, and has since childhood. She knows every detail about him. Upon meeting him at Coachella, she stares in disbelief before he wraps her in a long, warm, genuine embrace. She then cries in his arms. Interestingly, Eilish’s infatuation with Bieber perfectly parallels that of her own fans with her – something she highlights as tough to comprehend.Bieber lingers in the air for much of The World’s a Little Blurry. He’s the unspoken poster boy for what can go wrong with a music wunderkind, but he’s also risen from the ashes, resurrected his career and reputation, and gotten married. He sends Eilish a lengthy, beautiful note that she breathlessly reads aloud. “I’m so impressed by your aura and presence… Enjoy every moment of what you’re experiencing.”Jamie points out that the documentary’s focus is not necessarily the good stuff, the music process, or even her evolving confidence. Instead, it’s the classic push-pull of fame that comes into play more often. There’s a debate between Eilish’s mom and someone from her label about potentially depressing songs and an anti-drug message the label fears could come back to haunt Eilish. It’s a fair point, but Mom argues that Billie should be who she is right now, and that her music should be free to grow with her. Then, in a particularly poignant comment, Maggie addresses one of the most common complaints about her daughter’s work: That the music is depressing. “No,” she insists, “Kids are depressed.”Cutler goes on to depict a physically and emotionally spent Eilish become irritated, first when quick backstage hellos become an extended meet-and-greet, and then when Eilish must contend with the subsequent online criticism. “I literally can’t have a bad moment,” the rightly frustrated Eilish declares. Maggie and Patrick, but especially Maggie, are in the middle of all this, protecting their daughter, encouraging her, grounding her, but Billie is literally and figuratively the family business. That’s a tricky tightrope to walk. And Maggie and Patrick, both former actors, know the game all too well.Finneas, 23, is a musical mastermind. He writes and produces most of his sister’s songs, and plays several of the instruments. He soothes Billie when she expresses doubt that she can “belt” the booming parts of her James Bond theme song, “No Time to Die,” and when she – again — worries about “mean” internet trolls. It probably works best for the sibling tandem that the spotlight disinterests him, though he does acknowledge that their label is counting on him to coax a hit single out of her.“I realize this movie is about Billie,” I text Jamie. “But I wonder what this whole experience has been like for Finneas.”“He’s stuck really strong to his narrative of, ‘I am proud to be Billie Eilish’s brother,'” Jamie replies. “But, yes, would be interested. There is no Billie without Finneas.”The World’s a Little Blurry doesn’t so much build to a conclusion as to the next moments in Eilish’s career. The shows are larger, the stakes higher. The album drops… and explodes. Then, she’s equal parts dumbfounded, proud, too cool for school, and shy when she wins five Grammys, including Best New Artist. Early in the movie, Eilish – more than a tinge of impatience in her voice — details how differently she’d direct her music videos. By the end, she’s on a video set, assuredly calling the shots. It’ll be interesting to see where Eilish goes from here. Can she get much bigger? Handle more pressure? Find more joy in it than stress? Also, will she ever again let cameras document her every move or allow fans to glimpse the flashes of sadness and self-doubt that inevitably plague any great artist?Jamie rings through on Facetime.“That was amazing,” she enthuses. “I’ve got to watch it again. The things I’d do to be in that room when she’s creating her music. Billie is a genius. And I bet the pandemic is actually good for her… I think she needs the break.”Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry is streaming now on Apple+.
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