What Billie Eilish’s Doco Tells Us About The Future Of Fame
'The World's A Little Blurry' shows us what the life of a pop artist could - and should - be.
Infinite Pop is a Music Junkee column about the past, present, and possibilities of pop music.
In March 2020, Billie Eilish was living for the moment. She’d just become the youngest artist to sweep the four main Grammy awards in the same year, and the youngest to record a Bond theme, ‘No Time to Die’, for a film that was set to premiere the next month.
In March 2021, the recent past is cloudy. Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry, which documents the recording, promo, and tour for her blockbuster debut album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, emerges into a very different world.
The film has arrived too late to feel like part of the same moment as its parent album, yet far too early for us to have any real historical perspective on Eilish’s whirlwind career to date. ‘Bad guy’ and ‘when the party’s over’ are great songs that almost feel too familiar, yet every scene of her performing them to a crowd now feels totally alien. That sense of temporal confusion probably suits Eilish just fine — as someone who wrote a song called ‘when i was older’, and who’s been subjected to the same Vanity Fair interview for four years in a row.
The film opens with Eilish uploading ‘Ocean Eyes’ to SoundCloud, the moment just before her unintentional debut single went viral. It jumps ahead to a small club show in late 2018, and ends with her Grammys sweep in January 2020.
Along the way, her songwriting and recording process proves to be every bit as fascinating as her personal revelations and big life milestones. We’ve heard the stories of how she and her brother Finneas recorded When We All Fall Asleep… in her childhood bedroom, but the reality is even more fascinating. We see Billie record take after take — sometimes relaxed, sometimes irritable and complaining between takes, using equipment that’s well within the budget of most hobbyist musicians. It’s delightfully mundane — which is what makes her and Finneas’ process so motivating.
It’s notoriously difficult to depict moments of artistic inspiration, but the sheer amount of home video shot for the documentary lets us in. The film takes us from conception to execution and everything in between — we witness the work, sacrifice, team, and marketing machine required to make a piece of art a success.
While developing the concept for the ‘when the party’s over’ video, she precisely directs her mom, Maggie Baird, to rehearse drinking a glass of water in the family backyard. The film cuts to the making of the music video, where Billie endures a trial of her own design: having to shoot multiple takes, giving emotive performances while black liquid streams from her eyes.
We see gorgeously shot concert sequences where we realise what makes Billie such a compelling performer — she almost never sings louder live than on record, even as thousands are screaming the words back at her. We see her signature stage presence, running and jumping around the stage, and the consequences — shin splints, a sprained ankle two minutes into a Milan show, physical and mental exhaustion.
We wonder why she’s so stubborn about refusing to perform at a lower level of intensity… and we see footage of her dancing when she was 12. Her movements were traditional, and truly graceful, until she injured herself and retired from dancing permanently. It seems as if the prospect of losing another creative outlet might break her heart.
It’s notoriously difficult to depict moments of artistic inspiration, but the sheer amount of home video shot for the documentary lets us in.
We watch Billie perform on her biggest stage to date, Coachella in 2019, which infamously was delayed due to tech issues with the LED screens, forcing her to cut songs for time. Thrown off, she briefly forgets the words during ‘all the good girls go to hell’. To everyone else but her, the performance was still top-notch — the recovery is more important than the stumble. But back in the tour bus after the show, surrounded by her family, she’s inconsolably depressed.
The most profound response to this comes from the most unexpected of sources: Justin Bieber. Earlier in the film, Billie describes her longtime fandom with no shame: how when she was 12, she imagined her future boyfriends having to compete with her deep, pure, unabiding love for Justin Bieber. She understands now that she was in love with the idea of him — which is the definition of a parasocial relationship — but it doesn’t diminish the intensity of her feelings one bit.
They meet for the first time in front of the stage during Ariana Grande’s set. When Billie spots Justin, her body language reverts to that of a shy teenager. They embrace for what feels like minutes. The whole front row is watching them instead of Ariana, but it’s as if there’s no one else there. Time stands still.
Many of us have rolled our eyes at Justin Bieber throughout the years — but do we truly know anything about him? He’s able to give Billie the exact act of emotional generosity she needed not just in that moment, but in her entire life up to that point. The footage is unbelievable — the celebrity equivalent of watching a solar eclipse. It’s the one image from the film that you’ll never, ever forget.
A New Way Forward
The World’s a Little Blurry is exactly the documentary Billie Eilish deserves. Where most recent pop documentaries — including Justin Bieber’s Seasons — function like branded content, marketing preordained narratives to both casuals and fans who’ll lap up anything, Billie’s film makes no effort to pander to anyone. At two and a half hours, you’re either curious enough to check it out, or you’re not.
The director R.J. Cutler, who had the final cut, never forces any narrative on the viewer. There’s a very loose redemption arc that mirrors real life, yet many of its scenes are far from flattering. It doesn’t even matter whether or not you buy into the myth of Billie’s young creative brilliance — only that you make up your own mind. The film’s only goal is empathy.
It’s impossible to watch this film without thinking of the much-talked about documentary Framing Britney Spears — the latest example of how the more pop culture idealises fame, the more it hides the potential for exploitation. The 2020s version of celebrity is less cruel than it was in Britney’s heyday, but it’s faster-paced — and the human impulse behind our attraction to fame is the same as it’s ever been.
Billie Eilish could — perhaps should — be the template for pop artists going forward. She has full artistic control because she’s always had a unique vision — and because she came to music with no expectations, and could just as easily walk away.
But the truth is, her level of agency is unique. It’s an exception when it should ideally be afforded to everyone. It’s certainly not available to every young artist who signs a major-label deal — not even someone like Taylor Swift, who’s still unravelling the consequences of a contract she signed when she was 15.
2021 has already seen the meteoric rise of one new star, Olivia Rodrigo. What challenges will she face? She comes from the Disney machine, but has already had the freedom to write and record ‘Drivers License’, F-bombs intact, entirely on her own terms. It’s a song with a clear celebrity gossip angle, but people love it for the vulnerability of the music. Maybe things have already gotten better for the next generation — even as Britney’s still defined by her public image from 1999, her conservatorship from 2008.
The World’s a Little Blurry shows Billie Eilish’s past, but it looks like the future: a blueprint for how fame should work.
Most importantly, The World’s a Little Blurry ends by showing a path for Billie’s ongoing mental and physical health. She’s better equipped to deal with the inevitable lows; going through physical therapy so that she bends, but never breaks. By the time the credits roll, we know exactly what she means when she sings “I’m in love with my future”.
Still, The World’s a Little Blurry is unlikely to be a film you’ll want to rewatch over and over. It feels like reopening an old diary: loose, sprawling, and too intense for comfort viewing. But it is a document you might revisit over your lifetime — perhaps with your parents, or with your future children. We’ll ultimately judge it not by what it is now, but what it means to future generations. It’s already a captivating document, but in another 10, 20 years, we’ll truly understand its influence.
The World’s a Little Blurry shows Billie Eilish’s past, but it looks like the future: a blueprint for how fame should work. Hopefully one day, we’ll look back and realise it’s already come true.
Richard S. He is a pop songwriter, producer, and award-winning journalist. He tweets at @rsh_elle.
Photo Credit: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images