Review: Billie Eilish is an ordinary teen with extraordinary talent in ‘The World’s a Little Blurry’
By the time Billie Eilish played Coachella in 2019, she already had a No. 1 album, amassed millions of followers on social media and earned enthusiastic shouts-out from fellow musicians as varied as Dave Grohl and Tyler, the Creator.
At 17, though, the singer was still young enough — and still new enough to fame — that when Orlando Bloom turned up backstage to bestow an encouraging hug before her first performance at the desert festival, Eilish didn’t know who the 40-something English actor was.
“I thought that was just some dude Katy Perry met,” she says after Bloom and his pop-star fiancée take their leave in a funny sequence from “The World’s a Little Blurry,” a behind-the-scenes documentary about Eilish set to premiere Friday in theaters and on Apple TV+.
“He plays Will Turner in f— ‘Pirates of the Caribbean,’” Eilish’s brother and producer, Finneas, tells her helpfully over a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. “That guy!?” Eilish responds. “Bring him back. I wanna meet him again.”
The awkward celebrity encounter is just one of many milestones director R.J. Cutler captures in charting Eilish’s speedy ascent from her childhood bedroom in L.A.’s Highland Park where she and Finneas began recording moody electro-pop tunes in 2015 to last year’s Grammy Awards, where Eilish became the youngest person ever to win album, record and song of the year and best new artist in one night. (Now 19, she’s nominated again for record and song at next month’s Grammys ceremony with “Everything I Wanted,” in which she wonders if success is a dream or a nightmare.)
What made Eilish such a phenomenon — a kind of reluctant pin-up idol for an age of climate change and poisoned politics — was the sense that she was remaking teen pop as something darker and more vulnerable, with catchy beats full of weird noises and morbid but witty lyrics about depression and death. She wore baggy clothes that forced audiences to consider the routine sexualization of young women; she talked about her love of tortured guitar bands and of Justin Bieber, who eventually joined her for a remix of her No. 1 hit “Bad Guy.”
She’d also remind you every once in a while that she possesses a lovely singing voice, even if she’d almost always prefer to whisper than to belt.
Olivia Rodrigo’s swooning power ballad ‘Drivers License’ is the latest in a rich tradition of teenage melodrama in pop music, from the Shangri-Las to Taylor Swift.
A documentary about Eilish’s unusual career is a less-than-unique proposition. “The World’s a Little Blurry,” for which the singer was reportedly paid $25 million, is the latest product of a pop-doc gold rush that has yielded movies and streaming series about Bieber, Taylor Swift, Blackpink and Lady Gaga; like the others, this was made with the cooperation (and, one presumes, some measure of approval) by the star in question.
If that means Cutler’s film has to be thought of to some extent as a marketing exercise, there’s no denying the intimacy he achieves in scenes like the Bloom episode or a miserable post-show meet-and-greet where Eilish’s mother gently badgers her into posing for forced-smile snapshots with an endless parade of slickly dressed guys.
“Who even are they?” the singer asks her mom, Maggie Baird, who travels on tour with Eilish as a guardian-slash-assistant.
“I don’t know — they’re connected with the label,” Baird admits with a mix of regret and frustration that breaks your heart a little.
Indeed, the coin of the realm for these authorized how-they-did-it docs isn’t so much the big-picture storytelling, which most modern pop stars handle themselves every day on social media, but the proximity to smaller moments that reveal something about the subject. In that regard, Cutler — whose previous films include the teen romance “If I Stay” and “The September Issue,” a documentary about Vogue magazine — is frequently in the right place at the right time as he follows Eilish working on her album then supporting it on the road. (He’s said that one of his models for “The World’s a Little Blurry” was D.A. Pennebaker’s classic fly-on-the-wall Bob Dylan doc, “Dont Look Back.”)
We see Eilish and Finneas nervously presenting songs to a roomful of record execs; we see them perform “I Love You” for their dad, only to have him say it sounds like an old song by Duncan Sheik. (He means it as a compliment, he assures them.) Cutler shows Eilish sitting on her front porch, a giant backpack tilting her backward as she waits for a ride to the airport that will take her away from her friends at home. And he catches bits of unhappy phone calls with an oddly disengaged fellow who appears, though not for long, to be Eilish’s boyfriend. The portrait is of an imaginative, ultra-talented teenager whose poise onstage belies the ordinary insecurities in her head.
What Cutler’s not present for he fills in with shaky smartphone footage collected by Baird, including a delightful backyard scene in which Eilish — known for grisly visuals — is planning shots for a music video while her father, Patrick O’Connell, bags a dead rat killed by the family cat. The movie might be best when it’s focused on Eilish’s tight-knit relationship with her family, even if it could think harder about the risks of having a kid financially support her parents.
Early in the film after things have started taking off for Eilish but before the Grammys and Coachella and the concert in Milan where she sprains her ankle in front of an audience of thousands, we see the singer receive a present of a matte-black Dodge Challenger — her dream car, she says, though she’s not old enough to drive it — from her label. Later, after Eilish has gotten her driver’s license, Cutler’s camera catches O’Connell, proud but slightly sad, as she motors away from their home by herself for the first time.
It’s not a pop-star moment for anybody involved, and all the more touching for it.
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