I read the Billie Eilish profile in the New York Times last year and heard some of her songs in isolated instances. (The trailer for Saint Maud used “all the good girls go to hell” to terrific effect.) Still, my first real dive into her music was when I watched Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry. It’s currently on Apple TV+ and opens at some Tarrant County theaters this weekend, and while it’s perhaps best appreciated by people who like her music (she states in the movie that she doesn’t like to call them “fans”), it’s a decent intro for newcomers like me.
The filmmaker here is R.J. Cutler, the 59-year-old documentarian with a positive gift for inducing teenagers to open up, as in his 2000 miniseries American High. His subject here is a teenager too, and she seems like a fairly normal one in light of her outsize fame. Her public persona may be gloomy, but as the film follows her on her 2018-2019 concert tours, it catches her smiling occasionally, jumping up and down when she gets her driver’s license, and clowning around with her brother Finneas, a full partner in the creation of her music. Her parents, Patrick O’Connell and Maggie Baird, are bracingly level-headed about her stardom and seem to have provided her with a Southern California home that’s much like many others. The only major surprise for her, uh, followers is the revelation of a boyfriend, who is only identified as “Q” and, from what can be gleaned here, sucks. She also weeps unabashedly when she first meets Justin Bieber, which might also catch you off guard.
Rolling Stone’s cover called her rise “The Triumph of the Weird,” but what’s so weird about a teenage girl talking openly about her struggles with depression, dying her hair unnatural colors, wearing baggy clothes, or penning song lyrics about pondering suicide? All this seems pretty regular to me. It does run counter to the pop market, which is always overflowing with bright-eyed, well-scrubbed girls singing about that special boy who’s going to give her her first kiss. That gets old after a while, and there’s always a niche for someone who can speak to those listeners who aren’t afraid of the dark.
The film does suffer from the same thing that has hit every recent documentary about working musicians. (That includes Netflix’s films about Blackpink and Taylor Swift, the latter being more focused work than the film we’re discussing.) All these movies were made before the pandemic, and they’re at least partly about the vicissitudes of life on the road. Of course, there are no musicians on the road right now, and I find myself growing impatient when a movie spends time on this, even though I know the filmmakers couldn’t have foreseen our current condition.
Eilish seems given to a perfectionism that threatens to paralyze her, as when she sprains her ankle at the very start of a show in Houston and doesn’t want to go on when she can’t give the performance that she feels the concertgoers expect from her. The pressures of pop stardom remain much as they were 20 and 30 years ago, and she throws a not-uncalled-for tantrum after one where she’s repeatedly trotted out to take pictures with strangers at the meet-and-greet. In the tour bus, she says, “I can’t have a bad moment!” Should that happen, the blowback for her will probably be worse than for a male singer, but then, look at Bieber, the teen music star who also went through some stuff in his time. All things considered, Billie Eilish seems to be handling her issues a lot better. Between that and her musical chops, her future bodes reasonably well.
Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry
Directed by R.J. Cutler. Rated R.