In Miss Americana, documentarian Lana Wilson explores eating disorders, fame, and celebrity politics through subject Taylor Swift. Wilson, whose directorial credits include documentaries about Japanese suicide and late-term abortion, finds similar depth in the ensuing inspection of Swift’s character. Modern celebrity documentaries are overproduced to a fault, but Swift’s vulnerability allows Wilson the access needed to craft an early contender for the best documentary of the year.
Swift has built her stardom on songwriting talent and personal openness, and Miss Americana is an unprecedented look at her internal and external strife. Miss Americana combines home video footage, interviews with Swift and her friends and family, studio recordings, and concert videos to compile its story. Although the documentary focuses on Swift’s struggles between her sixth album (2017’s Reputation) and seventh album (2019’s Lover), the film encapsulates the singer’s life story in its 85-minute runtime.
As a young girl, Swift learned an instrument, wrote songs, and played shows to break into the country music industry. Her family relocated to Nashville for her to pursue a career in music, and she won Best Female Video at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards at only 19 years old. Kayne West, 32 at the time, interrupted Swift’s acceptance speech to decry her as an unjust winner. Swift’s composure after the insolent outbreak—by one of the biggest names in music during a nationally televised award show—is legendary.
The blowback from the award show and Swift’s ongoing feud with West and wife Kim Kardashian influenced the artist’s relationship with her own fame. “When you’re living for the approval of strangers, and that is where you derive all of your joy and fulfillment, one bad thing can cause everything to crumble,” Swift stated in the documentary. Instead of discovering a personal identity, Swift strategized ways to avoid criticism. Miss Americana offers an opposite perspective on the toxic relationship between public, paparazzi, and celebrity. “I became the person who everyone wanted me to be,” Swift noted.
Swift was then criticized for her political silence during the 2016 election. Damned if she did and damned if she didn’t, Swift made a political stand against her own financial interests. In hyper-partisan times, it’s easier for both sides to support a spineless, milquetoast performer than an outspoken activist, but she welcomed the polarization. Over the course of the three years covered in the documentary, the singer may have stopped performing the gymnastics of trying to be liked. This is only one aspect of a documentary that covers Swift’s eating disorder, her mother’s cancer diagnosis, and a sexual assault case.
Swift’s audience is as amorphous as Beyoncé’s because the pair share a rare universal appeal in a divergent music industry. Her original fans—once teenage girls—have grown alongside her. Miss Americana pinpoints Swift’s songwriting genius; an unrecognized brilliance that has made her a mainstay in the public consciousness. (1989 is the best pop album of the last decade.) Introspective and intimate, Miss Americana reflects the caliber of its subject.