‘Miss Americana’ review: Taylor Swift doc is a spirited, earnest portrait of an artist coming to terms with her fame

"It’s time to take the masking tape off my mouth forever”

Few musicians can escape scrutiny from a world of strangers – but even fewer have been subject to as much as Taylor Swift. Interrupted acceptance speeches at awards ceremonies, secretly recorded phone calls, exile, revenge, rebirth; the country singer turned pop megastar has inspired enough dramatic headlines to easily populate an entertaining biopic like this one. Miss Americana follows Swift closely, but lets the artist explain herself in her own words. For the first time, it feels like Taylor is allowed to stop holding her breath, and simply exhale.

The Netflix documentary revisits key events, but also digs into Swift’s self-imposed expectations. She reads these out from old diaries, and confirms they still hold true; whatever she does, she wants to be good at it. And most importantly – she needs other people to think so too.

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That she’s an artist who emerged during the birth of the Internet doesn’t necessarily make Swift unique. As she describes her feelings in Miss Americana, she sounds like any other person craving validation online. But Swift benefits from the distance gained over years of overwhelming and often unsought attention, making interview segments with her seem calm and grounded.

Miss Americana comes after the release of Swift’s seventh album Lover – a sweet, romantic record, marking a new era following the bitter defensiveness of its 2017 predecessor Reputation. Releasing the documentary long after streaming and sales figures numbers have been assessed allows a relaxed viewing experience, seemingly removed from direct marketing duties. The film responds to public drama, but offers more than a defensive response to an accusatory era. Here is a young woman aware of her potential expiry date, ready to peel back her layers and tell the truth of the bigger picture, to finally write her own history.

Taylor Swift performs onstage during the 2019 American Music Awards
Taylor Swift performs onstage during the 2019 American Music Awards in Los Angeles, California. Credit: Getty

The narrative loosely traces Swift’s musical journey, with select archival clips from performances as a plucky 12-year-old to sold-out stadium shows, but it isn’t exhaustive either. Nobody had filmed Swift in the recording studio before, which allows a few moments fans will treasure: breathlessly designing the video for ‘ME!’; tinkling the chords of ‘Lover’; solidifying the years-long buildup to ‘The Man’. But the 2012 Red era is almost entirely absent, don’t expect any 2014 ‘Shake It Off’ dance moves – and cynics looking for a ‘London Boy’ behind-the-lyrics video will leave disappointed.

Director Lana Wilson tastefully chooses which songs will anchor each vignette. ‘Out of the Woods’ gives gravitas to Swift’s confidence after her dramatic fallout with Kanye West, while ‘Clean’ offers a stirring atmosphere around Swift’s sexual harassment case. Memories of an eating disorder and political disagreements are laid bare, without frills, to outline what Swift was saying to herself when she went quiet to everyone else.

Taylor Swifts team responds to Big Machines denial
Taylor Swift performs during her recent world tour. Credit: Getty

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It’s a spirited, earnest portrait of an artist who admits that “it’s time to take the masking tape off my mouth forever.” Those who scorned her for staying silent on the US presidential race in 2016 receive an explanation, and the young woman bravely argues how it feels when the world falls out of love with you, and smartly stays private about who she fell in love with, and still is now.

Swift knows her influence is staggering, and finally accepts the responsibility to harness it for self-conscious women, for ambitious women, for women dismissed when they no longer fit the mould, or shunned when another voice deems them not strong enough. The years of fighting back, of seeking revenge in silence are long gone – now, Swift is reclaiming her crown as a national treasure. Sparkles, spikes and all.

Details

  • Director: Lana Wilson
  • Starring: Taylor Swift, Andrea Swift, Scott Swift
  • Release date: 31 January 2020
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