Last January, Arlo Parks was just beginning a massive year. Top of all the major ‘ones-to-watch’ lists, the south London singer-songwriter quietly amassed a very famous fan base, including Billie Eilish and Phoebe Bridgers. Little did she know that a whole summer of festivals, her US tour supporting Paramore’s Hayley Williams and a slate of headline gigs would soon cease to exist once COVID hit.
“I had that fear I’d be forgotten… I felt lost,” reveals Parks in a new, largely self-filmed documentary, released on iPlayer this week. The short film goes behind-the-scenes with pop’s rising star as she tackles the most unexpected 12 months of her life. But by the time we reach mid-summer, the talented teen has made it clear that a global pandemic isn’t going to slow her down. “If there is anyone who has made the most of lockdown, it’s Arlo Parks,” BBC Introducing’s Jess Iszatt (one of the first DJs to play Parks’ music) says over the show’s opening scenes – and after watching what unfolded in 2020, it’s hard to argue with her.
An early highlight is the chance to see how Parks crafts her soulful pop tunes, as she sketches out the songs for what will eventually become her debut album, ‘Collapsed in Sunbeams’, which is released this week (January 29). The scene follows a revealing diary-entry, monologue-like structure and sees Parks commenting on her personal challenges of lockdown (discussing the “grief” she felt for “the year I would have had,” for example) while giving a glimpse into her life via the music she plays, the books she reads and where she finds inspiration.
A Popstar In A Pandemic is littered with brilliant clips of the string of intimate lockdown gigs she’s performed, including socially distanced collaborations with Bridgers and Glass Animals. There’s also the career-best moment where Parks went viral for her breathtaking Glastonbury performance, which was beamed into millions of living rooms around the UK.
Clips of her famous fans emerge too, most notably with the inclusion of Bridgers who recounts the story of how the two came together to collaborate, not least on Radiohead’s ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ for BBC Radio 1’s Piano Sessions. “I was listening to Arlo’s music non-stop,” Bridgers explains in the film. “Arlo became the soundtrack to [my] quarantine.”
Later, Parks’ manager reveals how she carried on creating against the odds, working with the likes of Florence Welch and Eilish from afar. Glass Animals’ Dave Bayley echoes this too, describing Parks’ calmness during their two socially-distanced collaborations as well as the moving lyrics she lent to the band’s recent album standout, ‘Tangerine’.
At just over 30-minutes, A Popstar In A Pandemic is a short doc – and more would have been welcome, particularly about the later stages of making Parks’ debut. For the most part, though, this touching and otherwise revealing film tells a story of defiance and hope – and how an extraordinary young talent thrived in a year like no other.
‘Arlo Parks: A Popstar in a Pandemic’ is streaming on BBC Radio 1’s iPlayer channel now