Extremely loud and incredibly close: An inside look at the new era of music documentaries

From Billie Eilish to Demi Lovato and Taylor Swift, the music documentary is undergoing a fascinating, intimate overhaul. We go inside the transformation.
By Marcus Jones
February 22, 2021 at 02:00 PM EST

Billie Eilish knew what she was getting herself into.

"I grew up loving documentaries like Believe and Never Say Never," admits the 19-year-old music phenom, referencing Justin Bieber's popular concert films. So when a camera crew showed up at her childhood home in Los Angeles in 2018 to film a documentary about the making of her debut album, she welcomed them with open arms — if not exactly optimism. "My entire family and I thought, 'Eh, it's never going to actually come out,' " she says. "It has been pretty insane and surreal since." 

Billie Eilish's When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? emerged as a multiplatinum, Grammys sweeping smash, rendering the resulting film, The World's a Little Blurry, not only a reality, but also highly anticipated. Its release this Friday on Apple TV+ falls just a few weeks after the 10-year anniversary of when fans like Eilish sat eagerly in a movie theater and helped make Bieber's first film, Never Say Never, the highest grossing music documentary of all time (nearly $100 million globally), thereby ushering in a new wave. The decade since has seen other A-list musicians, like Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, Travis Scott, and more, participate in films of a similar nature, focusing on their personal lives — with a particular boon occurring over the past year. 

Philosophically, the question of why global superstars agree to have cameras follow them around for a year, give or take, is difficult to answer. But Scott Manson, chief operating officer of music management company SB Projects, offers a pragmatic reason. The executive producer of the 2020 docs YouTube Originals' Justin Bieber: Next Chapter and Netflix's Ariana Grande: Excuse Me, I Love You says, "Typically, they're built around a moment or a phase of the artist's career that is really core to the artist, first and foremost, to capture…. The artist either will come to us with the moment, or the moment will be obvious in terms of the impact and the scale." 

Credit: YouTube

According to one veteran film finance executive, "It's exciting for the artists to work independently because they have more control," if also a long wait before they see any financial benefits. "Although there are certain economic incentives for some of these artists, they aren't being paid like in a casting," adds a source who's worked on high-profile music docs. "There's [no] on-camera fee. That's a very big distinction. By way of that, these narratives are being driven by third parties. Maybe they're a filmmaker, maybe they're a financier or creative producer who sees an opportunity." And in the interest of the artists they represent, Manson adds that SB Projects often shoots exploratory footage until the aforementioned moment or phase that calls for a full documentary. "We always avoid pitching something that isn't completely baked creatively," he says. "Even if there's a bidding war, we don't want to put our artists in a position [in which] they're jammed into delivering a story that they're not inspired by, or they don't have creative control over." 

When the time comes to partner with a director to clarify that vision, it's all about trust. Summoned for a preliminary meeting with Eilish, filmmaker R.J. Cutler (The September Issue) was struck by how the singer's "incredibly warm family was so welcoming" upon his first visit. "It was very easy for me to be comfortable with them." He and the young star knew that day that they were meant to make a movie together. "If it's easy for everybody to be themselves in the first meeting, you have a sense that there's something there," Cutler says. Adds Eilish: "He was really sweet.... He walked through his plan. Something about it fit. And made sense." 

Credit: YouTube Originals

On the other end of the spectrum, singer Demi Lovato, whose new YouTube Originals series Dancing With the Devil premieres March 23, had known the director Michael D. Ratner for years before they decided to work together. "I met him as a friend [first]," Lovato says. "So when we started, I trusted him already. I didn't have to work on getting comfortable. By the time I sat down to talk about what I had been through, it had been two years, and I was ready to tell the world everything." 

"The better connection, the more intimacy and trust," adds the aforementioned source. "A lot of these subjects, you talk to them after they've filmed the [doc], and their relationships to the filming and the filmmaker are much different [than] at the beginning. In many instances, the subject is almost surprised that they revealed certain things." 

In that sense, becoming a cinematic subject has all but replaced in-depth magazine cover stories and network-TV sit-downs as an avenue for artists to reveal themselves in a new light. "You don't necessarily know what that journalist is going to write about you, but oftentimes [here] you're mending an artist who's telling their story with another artist who has final cut on [that] story," says Manson. While it isn't directly analogous to traditional journalism, the musician putting trust into the filmmaker "has created this sort of magical creative sandbox for filmmakers to interact with global superstars who are also artists — and see how they collaborate."

Lovato, for instance, felt a sense of ownership over the story Ratner was telling via the docuseries. "I was able to create the accurate narrative of what happened to me, without being worried that it would be edited by a press or news outlet," she explains. 

If artists find the medium ideal for avoiding press, then distributors see it as a fast pass toward front-page news. Indeed, you may have noticed all of the aforementioned projects found splashy homes on streaming platforms. "All the streamers use the same expression, which is creating the 'cultural moment,'" says the knowledgeable source. "How do we create a cultural moment around the Jonas Brothers? You drop the album simultaneously with the first documentary. You have a follow-up documentary two years later, and you do it on a global streamer…. Streaming is no longer a pejorative means of distribution." (Streamers also have cash to burn: Apple reportedly spent $25 million to acquire Cutler's Eilish film.) 

Credit: Courtesy of Parkwood Entertainment

Michael John Warren, who has directed nonfiction projects centered on Jay-Z and Nicki Minaj, including a forthcoming HBO Max docuseries on the latter, adds that streaming partnerships also benefit the filmmakers. "There's a little bit more freedom to experiment, to really do what you want to do," he says. "I don't want to say the stakes are lower, but if you were putting something on primetime on MTV 10 years ago, MTV would have to be like, 'Okay, this is the only thing we have on air tonight at eight o'clock.' [Meanwhile] look at what Netflix does. They're not just trying to become a television network; they're trying to become television. That's their thing — they're so wide." 

As more streaming services launch and hope to attract new customers, Manson asks, "What better way to market your subscription-based platform than [to] offer millions of existing, potential future subscribers an intimate look at their idols?" 

Head of YouTube Originals Susanne Daniels also promises flexibility. "Sometimes we're presented with a job [that's completed], and it's a bidding war," she says. "But sometimes people come to us with something that's partially finished. That was the case with our Johnny Cash documentary [The Gift, 2019]. We acquired it based on what we saw, and then they finished it with us. [And] sometimes it's an initial pitch, like Justin Bieber: Seasons [2020]. We're right there with them from day one." 

Daniels also has a theory for why stars like Bieber, Lovato, and Minaj, who have all made feature-length documentaries, returned with a longer-form approach. She posits that length is determined project to project by a variety of sources, admitting, "It's something that is pitched more, and it's something that we like doing. I think our audience likes watching in chapters. Over the five and a half years that I've been here, the data shows that people are watching YouTube content for longer stretches of time. And certainly over the pandemic, we've seen that watch time grow significantly. People enjoy the chapters, they enjoy bingeing the episodic, if you will. So it's a different way to tell the story, and sometimes it's a more touching way to tell the story."

For Lovato, the decision to tell Dancing with the Devil, which features a more harrowing tone than the average one of these docs, was brought about by life events. "I had already started shooting this one in 2018, but then after I OD'd I had to switch gears because my life took drastic changes," she says. "It covers what led into that life-changing moment through my recovery…. I had gone through different stages in this process and that's why we wanted to tell it like this."

It's no secret that these movies and series have exploded against the backdrop of COVID-19 — and the resulting pause on live events. "The pandemic has slowed down the speed at which everything moves. And that's probably given [people] more time to think about making a documentary," Warren says. Thinking of ways to connect with fans and inspire them while not being able to tour, musicians are asking themselves, "What am I going to do now?" Warren continues: "They are artists; they have to [have] output. That's part of the thing that makes them happy, is to make stuff." 

Credit: Netflix

The timing in the marketplace couldn't be better. "There's definitely a global appeal and also an appetite, especially of the streamers, to tap into the magic and the existing fan bases of some of these big personalities," says Manson. SB Projects' J Balvin documentary The Boy From Medellín, which Amazon acquired last fall, exemplifies that possibility, with Oscar-nominated director Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land) following the Reggaeton icon home to Colombia, to perform at a soccer stadium. 

This all feels new — at least as a trend. But, Cutler notes, maybe it isn't. Citing revered music docs like Don't Look Back (1965) and Gimme Shelter (1970), which followed Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, respectively, The World's a Little Blurry director sees a historical precedent. As he puts it, such classics asserted "that these films could be commercial, that they could live on a big screen, that Mick Jagger was as worthy of being the star of a movie as Robert Redford was." 

"That's the great tradition that many of us are working in, pursuing these films," he concludes. "If you're looking for great subject matter, you don't have to look any further than Billie Eilish."

A version of this story appears in the March issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands now and available here. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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