sat 17/04/2021

Billie Eilish: The World's a Little Blurry, Apple TV+ review - sprawling account of the singer's rise to superstardom | reviews, news & interviews

Billie Eilish: The World's a Little Blurry, Apple TV+ review - sprawling account of the singer's rise to superstardom

Billie Eilish: The World's a Little Blurry, Apple TV+ review - sprawling account of the singer's rise to superstardom

Would RJ Cutler's documentary work better in bite-sized chunks?

Girl on film: Eilish goes globalPhotos courtesy of Apple TV+

The Billie Eilish story is a paradigm of pop music and marketing, 2020s-style. Eilish’s instinctive talent became evident when she was barely into her teens, and she flourished with the support of a close-knit and musical family.

The Billie Eilish story is a paradigm of pop music and marketing, 2020s-style. Eilish’s instinctive talent became evident when she was barely into her teens, and she flourished with the support of a close-knit and musical family. But the club-gigs-and-radio-play model is long gone, and Eilish’s high-speed ride was boosted by a deal with Apple Music, releases of individual tracks on SoundCloud and YouTube and hefty promotional support from Spotify. The pitch had been rolled for the arrival of her debut album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? in 2019, which became a monster seller and won her a sackful of awards, including five Grammys. Early in 2020, she scored a Number One hit with the her James Bond theme "No Time to Die".

RJ Cutler’s documentary The World’s a Little Blurry is itself part of the big promotional picture, and at a colossal two hours 20 minutes it takes some digesting. This is the kind of timescale you’d associate with Springsteen or Pink Floyd rather than with this mercurial child of instant Instagram self-gratification, and Cutler (whose credits include The War Room, Listen To Me Marlon and The September Issue) even mocks himself gently by including a brief intermission at the halfway point. However, despite its longueurs this is an intermittently fascinating piece of film-making, even if it’s often hard to see the line between insight and self-indulgence (pictured below, Billie and brother Finneas with record company execs).

This isn’t fly-on-the-wall so much as fly-up-the-nostril, so ubiquitous are the cameras as they follow Eilish and her crew from home to vehicle to airport to studio, then flit briskly between continents as Eilish brings her album to fruition and takes her music to the faithful. The latter are mostly young-teenage girls, who we frequently see in radiant close-up as they gaze up raptly at the singer, singing along tearfully with all the lyrics. Camera-phones are in perpetual action.

The exaggerated running time gives the unfortunate impression that anything Eilish does or says must inevitably be of vital significance, but at least it allows plenty of space for the music. Eilish’s work is a magpie-ish mashup of hip hop and various kinds of electro- and indie-pop, and she tends to be compared to Lorde, Avril Lavigne and Lana Del Rey. However, it’s clear that she has that indefinable something that sets her apart. It’s there in the whisper-quiet harmonies and simple but strangely potent melodies, and her lyrics about depression or self-loathing evidently resonate widely. It’s striking how she can break into song as naturally and idiomatically as she’ll talk about her car (a matt black Dodge Challenger), her dog or the stresses of performing and touring.

As much as anything, though, The World’s a Little Blurry is a portrait of a family travelling through Eilish’s phenomenal success alongside her. There’s something quintessentially Californian about her home-schooled upbringing, in which her parents are more like collaborative older siblings than authority figures. The closest they get to the latter is when dad (whiskery and bearded and resembling maybe a veteran surfboard-repairer or ex-member of Moby Grape) gives a sorrowful little soliloquy about letting go and giving your kids room to grow as Billie hops into her car and vrooms off towards West Hollywood.

While Finneas plays a pivotal role as writer, bandleader and producer, mom gets plenty of screen time in her role as mentor and tour manager/counsellor, sometimes caught between hustling her daughter along into her promotional duties while keeping her fragile emotions on an even keel. There’s a memorable scene where the singer is besieged by unknown well-wishers at a record company after-show party, and flips out and leaves the room. Afterwards she berates her support team for leaving her exposed and making her the butt of snarky comments on social media (she’s hyper-sensitive about her online profile). Adding to her parents’ concern is the fact that she has Tourette syndrome, which sometimes prompts unnerving bouts of head-jerking and eye-rolling, and her mother is keen to avoid the overload-and-burnout syndrome that has wrecked many a young career.

There’s some reassuring moral support from Katy Perry, who greets Eilish backstage at the Coachella festival, warns her that her life “is gonna be wild for 10 years” and invites her to meet up and talk if she needs to. Especially intoxicating for Eilish is enthusiasm from Justin Bieber, with whom she was infatuated at age 12 (“Justin is fanboying over you,” reports Finneas), and they end up duetting on a new version of Eilish’s "Bad Boy".

Whether Eilish’s fanbase will have the patience to sit through Cutler’s sprawling mega-doc remains moot, though maybe their parents will like it (there’s plenty of lockdown time available, after all). Perhaps it should be reissued in bite-sized chunks for online consumption.

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