Hit Me Baby One More Time. Oops, I Did It Again. Toxic. Overprotected. I’m A Slave 4 U. (You Drive Me) Crazy. Stronger. These are some of the hits that propelled a teenage Britney Spears to global superstardom at the end of the nineties and into the early part of the new century.
Less than twenty years on from her peak, it is difficult to express how famous Britney was at that time. She remains very famous and, though her musical output has slowed over the past decade or so, she is still enough of a name for a documentary on Netflix bearing her name, is something of an event.
On Instagram, Spears has over thirty-five million followers, so she has obviously not been forgotten in the fallow years. In comparison, footballing superstar, Cristiano Ronaldo, has ten times as many followers.
Even the ‘famous for existing’ Kardashian/Jenner siblings all individually dwarf Spears’ account for followers, each one comfortably commanding over one hundred million followers.
To put the above facts into perspective, The Kardashians came into public consciousness in 2007. Spears, who had gone global with her first single – Hit Me Baby One More Time – in 1998, had released seven albums by 2007. Spears had become a star before digital downloads became the norm, before the attention grab of multiple media outlets and platforms as the internet evolved.
None of this is alluded to in the documentary. Britney Spears is part of the last, dying breed of proper global superstars. There are still artists who become famous but few, especially with the fast-paced, disposable need-for-new, internet social media age we live in, maintain that career-high over decades.
In the documentary by Erin Lee Carr and journalist Jenny Eliscu, Britney Vs Spears, they look at the court battle of Britney to wrest control of her life, career and finances from her father, James.
Her father had a conservatorship imposed on her through the courts, sighting her supposed inability to manage any aspect of her life competently as reasoning.
Unfortunately, a subject with great scope for exploration and intrigue, suffers from being a bit of a fawning, fan-made exercise, with Carr and Eliscu’s bias towards the star achingly obvious.
Told in a mix of documentary styles, employing film footage, voiceovers, hearsay and interviews, the filmmakers also take the odd decision to add themselves into the documentary, reading various accounts of happenings and snippets from redacted documents.
The lack of impartiality, with Britney portrayed as a bit of damsel-in-distress, weakens the film, having the effect of bringing out the cynic in the non-Britney fan. Even the most myopic Spears fan would challenge the one-sidedness of this documentary.
The makers ask pointed questions to a raft of slightly reticent interviewees, hamfistedly trying to coerce support of the notion of a Britney under, a somewhat, draconian dictatorship.
This alleged dictatorial conservatorship is supported by the legal system and enforced by her father. It truly is the stuff of telenovelas, only not as entertaining.
Truthfully, the documentary sheds very little light on the conservatorship. Much of what is shown, is little more than an interested party could have gleaned from the press or, especially in these highly informed times, the internet.
Lee Carr, who instigated the documentary as the filmmaker, says she spent two years putting it together. Eliscu, for her part as a music journalist, says that she was not into Spears music and knew very little about her as an artist. After meeting her, Eliscu liked her immensely and always enjoyed interviewing her.
It is not as though I feel they should be trying to destroy Spears’ reputation. After all, a vociferous press has spent more than a decade documenting and exposing her every foible and misstep, relishing her discomfort and misery.
The issue is, if one is selling a documentary, which by its very nature should be factual and, where possible, impartial, Britney Vs Spears fails.
That Carr claims to have been making it for two years does not bode well either, given the bias and paucity of storytelling. The film seems to be told with a handbrake on, due to possible legal ramifications, something hinted at towards the end of the film.
I suspect that the use of musical footage was probably prohibitively expensive, with any musical clips ‘blink-and-you-miss-it’ brief. Most of the Britney footage is from the news, showing her multiple encounters with the press and various partners.
It is a little haphazard, with the film trying to paint her father, James, as the villain. It is not an entirely surprising or, sadly, unusual story of those who should be looking after a star’s interest, benefitting and taking advantage of their privilege. What makes the film fail is the expectation.
The title sets up a battle. What one expects is a little history. How the opposing sides, father and daughter, came to their positions. The public deterioration of Britney. Her family and friends reaction to it. Maybe, showing her father’s reasoning, no matter how flimsy, behind deciding to implement such an extreme measure.
Unfortunately, as I said earlier, the people interviewed say so little that one is forced to fill in ominous blanks, something I suspect the filmmaker might have been aiming for. It is a misstep.
Britney Vs. Spears should have been a compelling and, hopefully, illuminating insight into an unusual situation. Instead, it is a patchy and frustrating film, leaving more questions than answers.