Britney Spears was a symbol for her entire public life. And, even in her seclusion, we can’t stop seeing her as something more, and less, than simply a person.
The new Samantha Stark-directed documentary “Framing Britney Spears,” produced by the New York Times and airing on Feb. 5 on Hulu, looks at both sides of the pop superstar’s troubled experience of fame. From childhood, Spears put her talents towards what the recording industry made available to her: a sort of flat, inoffensive notoriety, a life as an image onto which spectators could imagine anything, virtuous or otherwise. After a break — Spears’ well-documented struggles with mental health in the late 2000s, placing on hiatus her career as well as testing her personal relationships — the performer returned in a show of force, making music as well as money under the oversight of her father, who held a new judge-mandated power over her decisions, a legal conservatorship that endures to this day. (“Yes She Can!” read the Obama-era Rolling Stone cover announcing her re-emergence; what it was she could do was left vague.) In recent years, Spears’ backing away from work has raised, to her most devoted admirers, the notion that this artist’s stage may simply have shifted — that, through social media, she is subverting the control of powerful men and transmitting messages only the faithful can understand.
Both of these existences are iconic, with all that the word implies: not merely a sort of indelible impact but a stripping-away of humanity in the eye of the beholder. And either life, as teen-pop blank slate or isolated object of devotion, would be a lot for any person to have endured. Both in one lifetime makes Spears both a fascinating living document of how our culture treats those we purport to love, and a deeply sad case.
In the main, Stark strikes an appropriate balance, moving with crisp rigor and an unstinting yet respectful frankness through the Spears story. We move through Spears’ early taste of stardom with limited editorial comment but with shrewdly chosen documents of what, exactly, pushed Spears into alienation from her work and herself: Audio of ex-boyfriend Justin Timberlake speaking crudely on the radio about Spears, for instance. Or footage of “Star Search” host Ed McMahon addressing a ten-year-old Spears, who performed on the show an eerie rendition of “Love Can Build a Bridge” with the same timbre and vocal warble she’d carry into adulthood. “Do you have a boyfriend? Why not?” the gray-haired, bespectacled host asks the child before him. “I’m not mean. How about me?”
It was always this way with Spears: The documentary traces a pattern for the singer, one in which aspects of her style and bearing were overinterpreted and others were discarded as not suiting the story of a rapaciously sexual ditz. Spears’ tale has been told before, and more comprehensively — Vanessa Grigoriadis’ 2008 Rolling Stone cover story “The Tragedy of Britney Spears,” which came some months before the Spears comeback was announced, is as good a celebrity profile as has been released in my adult life, and should be the first resource to which anyone interested in Spears’ early life turns. But “Framing Britney Spears” benefits from the power of curation. The reporting it adds, too, bolsters the sense of Spears as a person from whom something was taken: Felicia Culotta, a figure familiar to the Spears fandom as the singer’s assistant, speaks at some length on-camera about the artist, and the person, she loved. “The one reason I agreed to do the interview,” Culotta says, “is so we could remind people why they fell in love with her in the first place.”
That love endures to the present, and, for many, expresses itself in the language of pursuit. We see, frighteningly, the culture of celebrity stalking in mid- and late-2000s Los Angeles, with paparazzos quite literally fighting one another for a better sightline on a star who seemed at times to want to push them away. Fans following Spears’ current iteration — with the singer semi-retired, legally bound from speaking freely, and passing the time posting prosaic and idiosyncratically captioned pictures of her home life on Instagram — pursue her in a different way. The documentary introduces us to various close-readers of Spears’ posts, including the hosts of a podcast that has put forward theories about Spears’ legal situation.
This documentary has elsewhere been meticulous in assembling a case that Spears’ conservatorship is part of a lifelong pattern of misuse — including in an interview with a lawyer who had been on, and later rejoined, Spears’ father’s legal team, lending the sense that all the world is a conspiracy against the singer. If actually broadcasting conspiracy theories at length feels somewhat beneath the Times, the documentary restores balance in short order. Without tipping its hand either way, “Framing Britney Spears” provides air both to grand theories of Spears and to those theories’ proponents explaining their belief in pitched terms. “Maybe I’m delusional, maybe I don’t know. I should just listen to the people who ‘know her,’” says one proponent, using sarcastic finger quotes. “But then you start to connect the dots, and you start to talk to people who have the exact same thoughts that this isn’t right…” She trails off, having said just barely enough to make clear she’s talking about a pop star and not QAnon.
Perhaps it’s just hard to believe that Spears is speaking in code because even speaking forthrightly got her so little. We see footage from early in the singer’s career in which she insists that she is in control of her art and message, a call that commentators ignored until it was eventually made untrue by force of law. Why bother trying to communicate with a public that had so misread and misused one? “If I’m wrong,” a fan and so-called “#freebritney activist” tells us, “and one day Britney does come out and tells us that we’re wrong and leave her alone, we will do just that.” It’s hard to believe that’s true, if only because Spears’ cries to be taken on her own terms throughout her career have not yet been heeded.
The romance to the idea that Spears speaks in code comes in part because she’s the only member of her class of celebrities who hasn’t meaningfully shared her side of the story. Spears’ fellow mid-2000s partygoer Paris Hilton recently released a first-person documentary; her pop-world classmate Jessica Simpson published a memoir last year. As the film points out, Spears hasn’t meaningfully spoken in public since a 2008 MTV documentary, meant as promotion for her comeback but unfortunately vibrating with tension and angst. (Footage of Spears yearning to be freed from conservatorship is reproduced here.)
Spears’ silence on her situation is its own tragedy because it seems that the situation has caused the silence. “Framing Britney Spears” comes to no conclusions, but for raising, through recent legal filings on Spears’ behalf. the idea that Spears may indeed be grateful for the ministrations of her fans online. That’d make for something of a shift, too, one that Spears, who has every reason to distrust anyone who’d call themself a fan and thus consumed her as she fell, deserves. This film provides a sort of pocket portrait of a person for whom freedom has been denied, and for whom that denial comes as no surprise. Before her father, the culture that idolized her had kept her a captive, too.