The Sundance Film Festival began Thursday night with the premiere of a new documentary titled “Miss Americana,” though you could have just as easily called it “The Awakening of Taylor Swift.”
And if that awakening takes a little while to get to in the film, directed by Lana Wilson (“After Tiller”), perhaps that’s because it took some time for Swift to arrive there herself.
Documentaries about music megastars are all the rage right now, and this year will also see nonfiction films about Rihanna and Billie Eilish, to name just a few. Still, when Wilson’s film begins, you wonder if she hasn’t caught Swift in a bit of a lull. As the pop star herself confesses, her biggest career goal — a second Grammy for album of the year, that one for her 2014 record, “1989” — is already well in the past, and perhaps not even all it was cracked up to be.
“You get to the mountaintop and look around and you’re like, ‘What now?’” Swift says in the film.
That uncertainty permeates the first act of “Miss Americana,” in which Swift is glimpsed noodling around on new songs, teasing her mom and admitting that she had never tried a burrito until age 26. Though this footage is hardly groundbreaking, Swift remains pleasant company, and she considers that demeanor a priority: “My entire moral code,” she says, “is a need to be thought of as good.”
It is for that reason that awards shows have always meant a lot to Swift: She considers their trophies to be the ultimate affirmation from the industry that she is on the right course. When Kanye West infamously crashed her Video Music Awards acceptance speech in 2009, then, it caused a fracture that has still not quite healed.
“For someone who based her whole belief system getting everyone to clap for you, the whole crowd booing is a pretty informative experience,” Swift says.
The two stars would continue to tangle in the press and in West’s lyrics, and though Swift struck back with her assertive 2017 album “Reputation,” which featured a lead single that many interpreted as a response to West’s slights, “Miss Americana” catches Swift on the day that record was snubbed and missed out on major Grammy nominations.
“When people fall out of love with you, there’s nothing you can do to make them change their minds,” she says, though that cold shoulder from the Grammys and an increasingly hostile wave of social-media takedowns have Swift on edge. At first, she takes it all quite personally, but after concluding a court battle with a radio personality who groped her, Swift starts to realize that so many of the issues she’s been facing alone are actually institutional problems that affect women everywhere.
It’s here that things start to click for both Swift and “Miss Americana.” She admits that constant paparazzi attention and pictorial scrutiny have contributed to an eating disorder she still tries to keep at bay: “It’s better to think you look fat,” Swift says, “than to look sick.” She also begins to question facets of her eager-to-please personality: Are women taught to seek approval at an early age, and has that held her back in ways that a man would simply brush off?
And then, to the horror of her management team, she begins to wade into politics.
Swift is furious when Marsha Blackburn, a Republican she describes as “Trump in a wig,” becomes the favorite for a U.S. Senate seat in Swift’s home state of Tennessee. Still, the singer had always been careful not to voice her political opinions in public: Having come up in the country-music world, she remembers all too well the backlash that the Dixie Chicks faced in 2003 after lead singer Natalie Maines said she was ashamed of President George W. Bush.
Though Swift’s mother encourages her to publicly endorse Blackburn’s Democratic opponent, other members of Swift’s management team beseech her to stay out of it, fearing she could lose half her fan base by criticizing Republicans. And what if President Trump goes after her, they ask? Swift reacts to that idea with a defiant expletive, takes to the internet with her endorsement, and decides she’ll never stay quiet about the things that matter again.
While Swift’s political journey gets plenty of airtime in “Miss Americana,” some major things are still left out of the documentary: A continuing battle over the rights to her old music is never touched upon, Swift’s actor-boyfriend Joe Alwyn is glimpsed only once in a backstage embrace, and her participation in the movie “Cats” is ignored entirely.
Still, Swift’s late-blooming mission to question authority and “deprogram the misogyny in my brain” is compelling. “I want to wear pink and tell you how I feel about politics,” she eventually asserts. “And I don’t think those things have to cancel each other out.”