For all the confessional songwriting that is her trademark, Taylor Swift has always held on to a quixotic sort of privacy, a hidden door behind the public persona. So it was surprising maybe to hear that she’d finally chosen to go where so many of her peers (Beyoncé, Bieber, Gaga) have gone before: allowing herself to become the subject of a feature-length documentary.
Except in many ways, Swift doesn’t really have peers; at 30, she’s already one of the most critically and commercially successful artists of all time — the rare mainstream star who actually writes her own songs, and turns out hugely successful albums with a regularity you can almost set a watch by. (All but one of them, her 2006 self-titled debut, have bowed at No. 1).
Miss Americana is at least partly about all that: Swift’s rise from chatty Pennsylvania preteen to Nashville ingenue, and on to pop’s center stage; the “good girl” syndrome she channeled into becoming a global superstar by the time most kids her age are still figuring out how to do laundry. There are many shots of sold-out stadiums, awards shows, and private planes. The Kanye Moment is revisited; ridiculously cute cats are petted.
Filmmaker Lana Wilson, who is maybe best known for the stark 2013 abortion doc After Tiller, has a knack for placing Swift within the glittery canvas of an almost impossibly rarefied life and making her feel like a real, relatable human at the same time. Here’s Taylor in a messy ponytail and sweatpants, working through the last chorus of a new song till she gets it right; there she is making pasta for her best friend and putting ice cubes in her white wine. Stars, they’re just like us!
It all feels appropriately intimate and on brand, a smartly calibrated glimpse into the 24-7 terrarium of modern fame. What takes Americana beyond a string of charming anecdotes though, are the revelations that make up much of the second half — most notably her poignant acknowledgment of a previously undisclosed eating disorder, and her choice, after years of increasingly conspicuous silence, to finally speak out about her political views during the 2018 midterms.
Watching a young woman try to convince a room full of middle-aged men that declaring her own voting preferences won’t be the end of her career is both galvanizing and depressing; seeing her do it anyway after they disapprove feels like an actual triumph, even if the election results she’s fighting for don’t. Near the end of the movie, she unleashes a great, furious monologue about the impossible standards of female pop stardom that neatly encapsulates nearly everything that the last 90 minutes of film — and nearly 15 years of criticism leveled against her — have been about.
The takeaway, whether Swift is talking about the Tennessee Senate race or why she puts chips in her burritos (“for crunch”), isn’t just that she’s articulate and impassioned and has a dry, sneaky wit; it’s that you wish you’d seen more of this Taylor a long time ago. But that’s the point of the whole movie, maybe: She was always there; it just took her 30 years to get to here. A–