‘Alone Together’ review: quarantine creativity in Charli XCX’s lockdown diary

A searingly honest and moving look at artistry during the pandemic

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    When lockdown took effect last March, Charli XCX shelved her ambitious fourth album and decided to create something from scratch. Made in just five-and-a-half weeks, ‘How I’m Feeling Now‘ perfectly captured the initial chaos of the pandemic’s beginning. Alone Together, the feature-length debut from directing duo Bradley&Pablo, gives us an intimate look at how the record was made. Perhaps more importantly though, it explores why.

    Set in Charli’s home and shot mainly by herself, managers Sam and Twiggy plus boyfriend Huck Kwong, the film documents her creative process in lockdown. She struggles to work with Logic computer software, battles bad signal on conference calls and doubts her own vocals abilities while recording in her makeshift studio. There’s more than enough material available to follow this format throughout, but the record was never just about Charli, so it’s important that the documentary isn’t either.

    The film opens with clips of Charli’s last headline tour in 2019, as night after night she whips the crowd into a frenzy. Angels (the nickname given to Charli’s fans) who met online tell the camera how each show creates a safe environment that enables virtual friendships to become IRL ones. Their statements are echoed by Charli who, fighting back tears at Brixton Academy, thanks the crowd for “liking me for me”.

    Charli XCX at the NME Awards 2020. CREDIT: Dean Chalkley

    Fast forward six months and the same fans are missing that shared space. “This album gives a lot of us something to look forward to,” says one teen before others talk of feeling trapped and isolated during COVID. As the making of the album progresses, Charli involves them with everything from lyrics and artwork to music videos and remixes, offering distraction from their current reality. It’s surprisingly moving to see this intimate relationship play out up close.

    Elsewhere, Charli’s impressive work ethic is on full display – and how damaging that can be to her personal life. “I’ve got serious issues with how I rely on work to make me feel like I’m a good person,” she says behind the scenes. “I don’t think I’m pretty enough, I don’t think I’m smart enough, I don’t think I’m interesting or funny enough of a person to function without my work. My work, and everything around it, is what makes me different and interesting. Without it, I feel like I’m nothing.”

    It’s not the only time Charli gets vulnerable either. Like on ‘How I’m Feeling Now’, Alone Together sees the pop star jump from giddy excitement to crippling self-doubt. There’s a voice note, shared on Instagram, in which Charli explains “even though I know I’m a good person, deep within me I seem to think I’m a bad person,” which causes her mum to phone and check in on her.

    Later, after a phone session with her therapist, Charli reveals how hard she finds it to say the phrase ‘I’m good enough’. “I just immediately hear this voice in my head that says, ‘You don’t deserve to be good enough’ but I know that I do. My head and body feel different things.” The documentary does away with the romanticised idea of a ‘tortured artist’ finding catharsis through writing troubling lyrics. “I’m supposed to be confident and inspiring,”says Charli. “I hate myself for saying that, but I’m not and it makes me feel like a liar.”

    Charli XCX
    Charli XCX performs live. CREDIT: Gina Wetzler/Redferns

    Alone Together also acts as a post-credit scene for ‘How I’m Feeling Now’. There’s a launch party with Angels connecting via Zoom to enjoy the record together. It’s a world away from the headline shows that opened the documentary but it’s just as euphoric.

    As for Charli, she admits “I can’t believe I made 11 songs and it’s going to be out on time. It takes a lot for me to say this, but I’m really proud of myself.” After all the talk of self-hatred and her inability to celebrate her own success, it feels like a moment of growth and acceptance. It’s refreshing to see.

    All these individual stories add up to one big reminder of music’s healing power. As Charli explains at the end of the film: “We are all, in some way, going through exactly the same thing. In a time where we were forced to be apart, we felt connected in ways we never have before.” Alone, then, but also together.

    Details

    • Director: Bradley&Pablo
    • Starring: Charli XCX, Huck Kwong, AG Cook
    • Release date: TBC (NME watched the film at a SXSW press screening)
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