‘Framing Britney Spears’ review: heartbreakingly human story that still lacks a happy ending

An underlying sadness pervades this TV documentary about the mistreated pop star

Since it premiered in the US on February 5, this documentary has engendered tremendous sympathy for Britney Spears, a pop icon who’s kept a low profile following an “indefinite work hiatus” in January 2019. It’s already cajoled a long-overdue apology from Justin Timberlake, who conceded that he “failed” Spears and Janet Jackson in the past by contributing to a system that “condones misogyny and racism”. But Spears’ famous ex isn’t really the villain of the piece: that dishonour goes to her father, Jamie, and the American conservatorship system that has robbed “Miss American dream, since I was 17” of her personal agency for the past 13 years. If you’ve seen the #FreeBritney hashtag on social media without fully appreciating its significance, this gripping and overwhelmingly sad film will bring you right up to speed.

Director Samantha Stark’s “framing” of Spears is insightful and compassionate from the start. Using new interviews with the singer’s longtime assistant Felicia Culotta and former label exec Kim Kaiman, we see how a “smalltown girl” from the Bible Belt harnessed a potent combination of focus, talent and charisma to become a pop superstar at a time when the music industry thought that “girls didn’t sell”. Simultaneously, other talking heads including New York Times critic Wesley Morris excoriate the toxic misogyny that followed her like a fog even before she broke through with 1999’s ‘…Baby One More Time’. After a 10-year-old Spears delivers a show-stopping performance on a talent show in 1992, the male host has only one question for her: “Do you have a boyfriend?”

Framing Britney Spears
Spears has been a conservatee of her father for the last 13 years. CREDIT: Sky

Stark’s unshowy approach is equally effective when her film examines the callous way the media reported on Spears’ mental health problems in 2007. This section should provoke a similar sense of collective guilt to Asif Kapadia’s brilliant Amy Winehouse documentary Amy. We all ate up the hysterical and flippant press coverage at the time, so it’s difficult not to feel complicit now, especially when it’s still possible to buy a coffee mug with the shockingly crass slogan: “If Britney survived 2007, then hell, you can survive today.”

This sets up the film’s raison d’être: a considered questioning of the conservatorship that has given Spears’ father, Jamie, extensive control over her career, money and medical affairs since 2008. Court documents describe Spears as a “high-functioning conservatee” – she’s released four albums and completed a 250-show Vegas residency while confined by it – and reveal that she’s asked for her father to be replaced as co-conservator. One fan suggests, tellingly, that Spears’ current predicament “is something that would not have happened to a man in America.”

Framing Britney Spears
‘Framing Britney Spears’ airs on Sky Documentaries tonight (February 16). CREDIT: Sky

Stark’s documentary also explores the deep-rooted fan loyalty that fuels the #FreeBritney movement. When America’s supposedly flawless girl-next-door turned out to be heartbreakingly human, they only became more devoted to “the Holy Spearit”. Framing Britney Spears acknowledges that “the real Britney” is essentially unknowable at this stage: because she rarely gives interviews and has almost never spoken about her conservatorship on record, fans are left searching for coded messages in her superficially perky Instagram captions. And for obvious reasons, it offers no satisfying conclusion because Spears’ legal battle to rework the terms of her conservatorship is ongoing. But it’s impossible not to come away hoping that the singer’s wishes – whatever they may be – are listened to in the very near future.

‘Framing Britney Spears’ is available in the US on Hulu.

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