‘Britney vs Spears’ review: cheap trauma porn that benefits no one

This rushed Netflix doc deals in soapy headlines and half-truths from ex-boyfriends

Another day, another Britney doc. Whereas Samantha Stark’s Controlling Britney Spears feels like a rigorous follow-up to Framing Britney Spears, her empathetic and enlightening film from February, this Netflix effort never fully justifies its own existence. Though director Erin Lee Carr is clearly sympathetic to Spears’ plight, her film is too willing to rehash painful episodes from the singer’s past en route to explaining the desperately sad situation she is currently trapped in. This, combined with some slightly tacky aesthetic choices, means that Britney vs Spears verges on trauma porn.

Carr’s decision to include less than probing interviews with two shifty figures from Spears’ past – paparazzo-turned-boyfriend Adnan Ghalib and Sam Lutfi, a man who says he briefly became her manager after they met in a nightclub – feels misguided. By now, even a casual Britney fan knows the singer’s life has come to be dominated by toxic hangers-on, so why give the spotlight to men who arguably fit that mould? Carr is on sturdier ground interviewing Felicia Culotta, Spears’ friend and former assistant who also appears in Stark’s docs, but it’s telling that Culotta seems less forthcoming here. Whereas she is comfortable enough in Stark’s recent film to deliver a heartfelt message to Spears, a woman she has known for more than 30 years but is no longer in contact with, here she clams up after being asked clumsy questions about the singer’s father. A halting interview with Mark Vincent Kaplan, attorney for Spears’ ex-husband Kevin Federline, is equally lacking in fresh insight.

Framing Britney Spears
Spears’ father Jamie has controlled her life since 2008. CREDIT: Sky

Carr’s film becomes more interesting when she and former Rolling Stone reporter Jenny Eliscu drill down into the details of the conservatorship that denies Spears agency over her personal and business affairs. The fact that we literally see them poring over print-outs feels a bit tacky, and probably betrays Carr’s background in true crime docs, but it’s illuminating to have the highly restrictive legal arrangement spelled out in plain terms. Sadly, when Carr says of its iron-clad terms, “You don’t get out till you scream”, it heightens the whiff of cheapness that fogs this whole project.

At the start we’re told that Britney vs Spears was initially conceived as a film about the singer’s “artistry and her media portrayal”, but the end result only really explores the latter. Carr reminds us that Spears’ earning power has remained phenomenal under the conservatorship, which at least highlights why the arrangement serves the various lawyers and management types whose salaries it pays for. But the director seems less interested in how and why she became such an iconic performer in the first place: we see footage of #FreeBritney activists picketing court hearings, but never hear what the singer means to them. Britney vs Spears ends with the now familiar leaked audio of Spears coolly but furiously eviscerating the conversatorship at a June court hearing. It is, by some margin, this film’s most powerful and vital moment.

Details

  • Director: Erin Lee Carr
  • Featuring: Britney Spears, Felicia Culotta, Tania Baron
  • Release date: September 28 (Netflix)
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