There's barely a frame of new Netflix documentary Taylor Swift: Miss Americana that doesn't feel as if it has the hand and heart of Swift herself, though Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Lana Wilson is attributed as the film's director and Wilson is no directorial hack having crafted such strong efforts as After Tiller, P.O.V., and The Departure. Indeed, Taylor Swift: Miss Americana most certainly is Wilson's film even if the film often feels like it's showing us the Taylor Swift that Taylor Swift wants us to see right now.
Swift has always been a compelling public figure, a genuinely talented young woman whose rise to fame began in her mid-teens and whose public persona is somehow both refreshingly authentic yet undeniably self-controlled. If you've followed Swift for any length of time, then you're well aware of her penchant for an uncommon degree of fan interaction and even intervention. You'd be hard-pressed to come up with a holiday season in the last 15 years when the media hasn't latched on to Swift sending out Christmas presents to unsuspecting fans. She's known to celebrate birthdays, lament over tragedies, and just plain show up for her fans in ways that you can't help but find incredibly endearing.
Swift feels accessible, a remarkable fact for an artist whose management team, which includes both parents, has been known to utilize armored cars for her protection due to death threats against her. Swift has long projected an "every girl" aura, though with 50 million albums sold, 10 Grammy Awards, and a personal worth estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars Swift is more the girl every girl wishes she could be.
Of course, Swift is not entirely accessible. She couldn't possibly be and maintain her sanity and her safety. This fact, which should be obvious, is evident in Miss Americana but so to is that spark of humanity that allows Swift to make us believe that if we ran into her on the street she'd invite us to join her for coffee at the hipster coffeehouse down the street.
Wilson captures, perhaps more than anything, that Swift is not only a remarkably talented young woman but also a remarkably intelligent young woman. If she has a character flaw, and it's debatable if it's a flaw, it's that she's long had this almost insatiable need to be liked and it's that need that appears to be getting put on the backburner as Swift arrives at the age of 30 just starting to become aware that being liked is over-rated and if she has such a powerful influence perhaps she ought to use it.
It's no secret that Swift dipped her toes into the political scene this past year, a potentially dangerous move for one of America's most popular entertainers at a time when it seems America is impossibly divided. A Tennessean, Swift endorsed a Democrat whose loss seems to have only encouraged Swift to become even more outspoken.
Raised from her early years to be the "good girl," Swift has long avoided anything resembling controversy, well, unless you count the Kanye debacle at the 2009 MTV VIdeo Music Awards or her confrontation of a morning show DJ who allegedly groped her during a photo op and was subsequently terminated when Swift spoke up. The DJ in question sued her over the termination of his job; she countersued for $1 and won.
In case you can't figure that out, it wasn't about the cash.
Wilson documents all of these things, essentially capturing Swift's transition from an approval seeking artist determined to be liked by everyone at nearly any cost into this newest variation of Swift, a 30-year-old woman who shied away from the spotlight for a year to focus on her relationship with Joe Alwyn, seen only briefly here, and who is learning to be at peace with herself and who, at least minimally seems more and more willing to forego some of that popularity for the sake of living a meaningful life.
A longtime admirer of the Dixie Chicks, Swift is captured in Miss Americana struggling with the decision of whether or not to go public with her political views, an act that virtually destroyed the Dixie Chicks with one single solitary statement. While Swift has undeniable influence in the music biz and a fiercely loyal fan base, has she become comfortable enough with herself to see some of that fan base part ways if she becomes more true to herself?
The answer, at least according to Miss Americana, is kinda. Maybe.
Miss Americana will please the Swifties, many of whom will feel like they've grown a little bit closer to the artist they idolize. Non-Taylor Swift fans won't likely find anything in Miss Americana that will change their minds. The truth is that Miss Americana is an entertaining film with just a hint of emotional depth, a dash of insight, a smidgen of Taylor's usual "real girl" moments, and such a good heart and pure enthusiasm that it's nearly impossible to hate even if you find yourself believing this is all simply Swift's latest marketing campaign extraordinaire.
Miss Americana feels like it's presenting a Taylor Swift who has survived her young adult years and heads into her 30's older, wiser, more comfortable with herself, and less willing to compromise her soul for the sake of being liked. Swift actually does seem like a remarkably likable human being, the kind of artist this Midwestern film journalist would love to sit down with and chat for awhile.
While true insights are few and far between, and you get the sense that Swift likes it that way, Taylor Swift: Miss Americana makes an unbelievable world believable and an unfathomably successful artist seem surprisingly, well, likable. Taylor Swift: Miss Americana is now available for viewing on Netflix.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic