I promise you, the only eye-roll-inducing scene in this 2008 documentary about the life of Britney Spears occurs within the first 10 seconds, and then you will feel nothing but moved. It begins with a panoramic shot of the Los Angeles cityscape — the hazy kind you typically see in crime dramas about drug cartels or PSAs about global warming — before lines of sans serif text begin to appear onscreen.
“On the eve of the 2008 MTV Video Music Awards, Britney invited a film crew into her life,” reads the first line.
On the eve of the VMAs.
On the eve!
As if it was the Paris Peace Conference, rather than an awards show where prizes shaped like astronauts were handed out to groups like The Pussycat Dolls and Linkin Park.
But that’s it. That’s the single cringe-worthy moment in this captivating behind-the-scenes look at Britney’s life, filmed only a year and a half after she shaved her head and attacked a car with an umbrella, and only eight months after she was placed on a 5150 psychiatric hold at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
The rest of the film is, dare I say it, illuminating. Revelatory. It elicits compassion from even the most sociopathic among us.
“Britney: For the Record” is heartbreaking.
Here’s an example of what I mean:
Britney is in New York for meetings with her record label. One night, after seeing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights,” she goes out to dinner with two of the musical’s lead actors, Christopher Jackson and Seth Stewart.
Britney looks radiant in the restaurant’s soft lighting, and also mysteriously contemplative; she wears a simple black dress, her blonde extensions hang in waves, and her diamond chandelier earrings graze her neck whenever she inquisitively tilts her head.
There is romantic chemistry between Britney and Seth, and after dinner she debates nervously with someone from her detail — a group that guards her like hounds from the hundreds of paparazzi that constantly stalk her — about whether or not she should ask Seth if she can see him again while she’s in town. A melancholy piano arrangement scores the scene, which, like the rest of the film, is interspersed with fragments from a series of interviews she filmed for the documentary in Los Angeles.
The paparazzi have taken her life away, Britney explains in her interview. All of the normal things like “going out, and doing stuff, and seeing a guy.” So, on this magical night in New York City, after taking in a Broadway show and having a fun dinner with a really cute guy, Britney knows that to lean into the moment and experience the joy of it would lead only to the worst kind of heartbreak. “I go there, and then it starts to hurt,” she tells us. “I know I can’t stay there for too long, because it’s not real.”
Onscreen, Britney is posing for a picture with the restaurant’s manager. We catch one last glimpse of Seth before her team leads her out of the restaurant and into an awaiting SUV.
“When you’re in a dream and you’re like, ‘Please don’t make this be a dream!’” Britney continues. “But you know you’re dreaming, and you don’t want to wake up.”
She looks excited, like she’s buckling up for a carnival ride. But then someone has closed the door, and the SUV pulls away.
The night has ended, and everyone goes their separate ways.
“And it was just a dream,” she says.
In 2007, after Britney lost custody of her two small children and had been placed under a conservatorship overseen by her father and her attorney, I was on what I liked to call “Britney Watch,” twenty-four/seven. Late into the night, I would scroll through YouTube videos and watch, mesmerized, as Britney hightailed it around Los Angeles in her white Mercedes while the paparazzi swarmed her like bees.
Where is her family? I would wonder, aghast. Where are her friends? She had obviously come unhinged, and no one seemed to be helping her.
“My babies represented home,” Britney says in “For the Record.” “That was my home, with them. And every time I went home, it was like, ‘Oh god, I can’t be here.’ So, when I was in my car, and when I was driving, I was going somewhere.”
In one YouTube video, Britney has pulled over to take a picture of a random mural on the side of the road. The flashes are like a lighting storm, inches from her face.
“I’m just like you,” Britney says to the cameras.
She holds up her own camera to take the picture, but she can’t see anything. “You stupid fuck, MOVE!” she screams at one of them. Then she’s lost her camera’s memory card, and she’s searching for it on the ground. It’s dark outside.
“You guys took it,” she says helplessly.
Finally, one of the paparazzi finds the memory card and hands it to her.
“Thank you, baby,” Britney says.
Whoever’s filming stands so close to her, we can see inside her ear canal.
“I’m a person just like you,” she says.
When Britney returns to Los Angeles from New York, she films the video for her song, “Womanizer.” On set, she looks dejected in a dark auburn wig while a tattoo artist applies a temporary tattoo to her arm in between takes. Her team (father, managers, assistant) looks on.
“I’m angry,” Britney says to the room in a matter-of-fact tone. They all laugh. “I’m very angry,” she reiterates.
“You don’t seem it,” someone says.
“I’m horribly angry.”
They laugh harder, and her assistant says that they can’t take her seriously when she’s smiling. (The only thing you need to know about her assistant — besides, perhaps, her name, which is Brett — is that she fake-laughs at everything Britney says and does; it is an unsettling display of submission, adoration, and a sinister effort to cajole and, ultimately, control.)
“I’m smiling right now because I think it’s funny that y’all are laughing,” says Britney.
The scene cuts away to her private interview. Britney, resting her chin in her hand, says, “You can’t really go there in a complete state of happiness because you’re scared that it’s gonna be taken away, you know? So it’s better just not to feel anything at all and to have hope than to feel the other way.”
On the “Womanizer” set, Britney makes a joke that her tattoo should read “Man of my dreams.” A manager says, “I don’t think you’ve met him,” and she replies, still joking, “Yes I have! I’m going to get married next year and have babies!”
There is nervous laughter from her team this time — she’s mentioned motherhood; the courts have deemed her unfit — and then the film cuts briefly back to her interview. “When I tell them the way I feel, it’s like they hear me, but they’re really not listening,” she tells us, her eyes filling with tears.
On set, the tattoo artist, who is pinning her arm down and writing words on her, says, “You’re probably so used to getting your way that it’s weirding you out that you’re not right now.”
The room erupts in laughter.
In her interview, Britney is still crying.
It’s difficult not to like Britney’s father. Jamie Spears might be benefitting monetarily from the joint effort to sustain his daughter’s career/mental health, but it’s obvious that his primary concern is her wellbeing. In one of the earliest scenes in the film, he carefully prepares homemade cheese grits for Britney while she gets her hair done before the VMAs. (SPOILER ALERT: She wins three.) He dotes lovingly on her children; on Halloween, he feels terrible when he accidentally scares the shit out of the littlest one with his clown mask. (It is literally the scariest clown mask ever, so how he thinks it could have gone any other way is beyond me.) And at a photo shoot for Glamour, he starts to cry when Britney is getting her makeup done because “she looks so pretty.”
This last scene is incredibly touching, and yet it also illustrates the troubling way in which speculation about Britney’s mental health has always hinged upon how good she looks. When her hair is long and she has a nice tan and a flat tummy, she’s “in a good place” and ready to crush it onstage. If she’s pale and chubby, she’s off her meds.
“I’m Mrs. Extra Extra, This Just In; I’m Mrs. She’s Too Big, Now She’s Too Thin,” Britney sings about her tabloid life in her song, “Piece of Me.”
It’s a fitting sentiment, but I’ve never heard anyone say that Britney is too thin.
Throughout “For the Record,” Britney speculates honestly about what caused her breakdown. Was it PTSD? She wonders aloud. (I think it was at least partially due to postpartum depression.) And at one point she says, so quickly you almost miss it, that she just didn’t know how to live with 30 cars full of paparazzi constantly parked outside her home.
These days, Britney rarely does interviews that go beyond the surface level. The closest we can get to knowing her is, ironically, via the superficial medium of social media. In the documentary, Jamie was constantly wrestling Britney’s phone away from her. Now, it’s obvious that she’s free to roam wherever she pleases in the digital world, so long as she remains sequestered to two real life locations: the stage, or her home in California.
On Instagram, we see that Britney’s home has become her safe space. (I sense that the army of security guards, lawyers, managers, and family members that constantly surrounds her no longer allows paparazzi to be constantly parked outside her home.) She paints on her terrace, swims in her pool, and works out in her home gym. She has a boyfriend now — a tall, strapping twenty-something personal trainer — who helps her do back handsprings and launches her off of his shoulders into the water. Perhaps it’s he who holds the camera when she transforms her foyer into a catwalk and models random outfits from her closet.
It’s like her life is a perpetual slumber party. Or maybe it’s like she’s a princess trapped in a castle. The conservatorship is ongoing, after all, and despite the fact that Britney has released four albums and performed hundreds of shows over the past decade, there are signs that her mental health continues to be a concern. (But whose isn’t, amiright?) She looks extremely nervous when she performs, even though she insists that she loves it, and her dance moves have become slightly — I can’t think of another word besides “atrophied.” There is a lot of hand-ography rather than choreography, as if she’s a Malibu lifeguard telling her colleagues to look out for a three-year-old who’s wandered off, or a cheerleader spelling out “GO TOROS.”
Don’t get me wrong, Britney can still thrill an audience. At the 2016 Billboard Music Awards, which aired live on ABC, her seven-minute-long medley of some of her greatest hits brought the house down. (See Kathryn Hahn nearly lose her shit when Britney rides a giant electric guitar like it’s a mechanical bull.) But did I also detect pity in the whoops and cheers from the celebrity crowd? And, like me, did they each breathe a sigh of relief when it was finally over, and Britney hadn’t tripped over one of her thigh-highs or impaled herself on that wobbly stripper pole?
I have no doubt that there’s plenty of juice left for Britney to squeeze out of her career. (Or, should I say, plenty of cash left for her longtime manager, Larry Rudolph, to milk from the cow.) But, over a decade after the debut of “Britney: For the Record,” I’m afraid the pop star’s magnetism no longer has as much to do with her stage presence as with the spectacle of her fragility.