Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
BILLIE EILISH: THE WORLD’S A LITTLE BLURRY
Rated R, 140 minutes
Director: R.J. Cutler
Cast: Billie Eilish, Finneas O’Connell, Maggie Baird, Patrick O’Connell, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Orlando Bloom
Billie Eilish creates thought-provoking art, from the striking imagery on her album covers, to her music video conceptualizations. However, R.J. Cutler’s BILLIE EILISH: THE WORLD’S A LITTLE BLURRY, a coming-of-age documentary chronicling the alt-pop star’s meteoric rise to fame and critical acclaim over the past few years, isn’t intended to be provocative like MADONNA: TRUTH OR DARE, nor is it here to make revelatory statements on the music industry like Taylor Swift’s MISS AMERICANA. Yet his cinéma vérité style captures a similarly empowering, fulfilling tale of a pioneering, empathetic young woman exercising full control of her career while finding her way in a continually changing world. It’s also surprisingly wholesome, despite that R-rating, which is for language and some content sensitivity.
Taking place in the window after her debut EP “don’t smile at me” was released and before her first album “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” skyrocketed her to another level of worldwide fame, the documentary begins on a fresh-faced 16-year-old Eilish with only (sarcasm) 1 million Instagram followers. She’s crafting what would turn out to be her next chart-topping singles, following the success of “Ocean Eyes,” again collaborating with her brother Finneas O’Connell in his bedroom recording studio. She’s incredibly grounded in her sensibilities dealing with budding fandom – not viewing fans as fans, but rather a splintered part of her soul.
It’s here where the onslaught of wholesomeness begins. Eilish comes from a musical family, crediting her still-married parents for instilling the importance of music and art in her and her brother. Marquees may bill her as a solo act, but it’s clear her musical prowess is an amalgamation of her family’s talents, whether that’s shown in the ukelele she strums (learned from her mom, Maggie Baird), or in the concerts she plays with Finneas. Cutler highlights many endearing familial moments, from the parental discussions with Eilish, advising her on her career and physical safety, to when her Dad Patrick O’Connell teaches her how to wash her new matte black Dodge Challenger (one with the “not-souped-up engine,” her mom whispers to the camera). It’s also heartening to see that the siblings eschew heated arguments, instead favoring respectfully toned creative differences.
Thematic resonance is achieved by showing the enlightened singer-songwriter dealing with the growing pains ordinary teens go through transitioning to adulthood (first love and heartbreak, getting a drivers license, becoming independent) while also caught up in the extraordinary circumstance of already pursuing her life’s passion. Her 17th birthday party, where she skates at an ice rink while clad in a Gucci sweat suit, is a brilliant, dichotomous clash between her childlike sensibilities and her adult tastes. She airs her problems briefly, bemoaning that the world tour takes her away from her family and home life. For someone as young as Eilish, grappling with the pitfalls of fame while attempting to find balance for her mental health struggles (of which she speaks openly about her Tourette’s affliction and self-harm issues), her complaints are understandable and surprisingly succinct.
One of the other more touching aspects includes deals with Eilish’s professional relationship with Justin Bieber (who had two music docs, NEVER SAY NEVER and BELIEVE), another young superstar sensation who’s matured tremendously from his wild child days into a thoughtful creative mentor. We see their connection shift from Eilish’s adorable “Belieber” fandom in her tweens (shown in a video confessional whilst hugging her dog), to someone she can call a musical peer and pal. It’s genuinely moving, as is her encounter with Katy Perry (who also had her own music doc PART OF ME), who pulls her aside backstage at Coachella to briefly offer her guidance if she ever needs it.
Much like GAGA: FIVE FOOT TWO captured Lady Gaga’s intense drive, love for her fans and measures taken for her physical pain management, so does Cutler spotlight Eilish’s professionalism. Her desire to put on the best concerts despite physical obstacles like shin splits, sprained ankles and neck pain is admirable. Her minor meltdown, created out of a lack of communication and confusion after an exhausting meet-and-greet, is understandable. She’s deeply connected with her songs, breaking down in tears during her acoustic performance of “I Love You,” crying cathartic tears with the audience singing along, the fans providing a supportive safety net in vocal chorus as she hovers on a bed. While the glimpses behind the proverbial curtain fail to uncover much new to say about the grueling toll stardom takes on its headliners, they don’t leave the audience wondering, or wanting.
Since this spans two years, there’s time for Eilish to reflect on her old journals, not solely the one she proudly displayed for cameras at the beginning. “I was in a bad place,” she confesses, poring over the pages of an older notebook covered in coded lyrics about cutting, a retaliatory act done in her younger teen years. Her future self scoffs at these former insecurities laid bare on the page, scribbles drawn not in blood but black ink, now exorcised by her artistic creations. Cutler’s doc is yet another form of journaling – a cinematic one for all of us to decode and deconstruct. We only hope that in two years’ time, Eilish won’t watch and deride her vulnerabilities captured here. Or maybe she will, and that’s part and parcel of an artist’s maturation. But in this moment, we want to preserve her psychological and emotional wherewithal just as-is.
BILLIE EILISH: THE WORLD’S A LITTLE BLURRY begins streaming on AppleTV+ on February 27.