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Taylor Swift: Miss Americana Is an Intriguing But Incomplete Sketch of an Icon in Transition

7 minute read

Taylor Swift hasn’t been to a Grammys ceremony since 2016, when—at 26—she took home three trophies, including her second Album of the Year for the multi-platinum 1989. But the awards loom large in Taylor Swift: Miss Americana, the much-anticipated documentary (which premiered last week at Sundance and will hit Netflix on Friday, Jan. 31) that traces her life in the years that followed. One of the film’s most revealing vignettes takes place in late 2017, when Swift learns that 1989’s divisive follow-up, Reputation, has failed to earn a single nomination in any of the Grammys’ major categories. “This is fine,” she declares into her phone, studiously calm but also palpably hurt. “I need to make a better record.”

There’s a lot going on in that reaction. Like most superstars, Swift doesn’t need the Grammys nearly as much as they need her. So she could have shrugged off her snub. After all, it’s not like the Recording Academy is known for its consistent good taste. (The same year Reputation was passed over for AOTY consideration, Bruno Mars’ bland 24K Magic beat out far superior albums by Kendrick Lamar, Childish Gambino, Jay-Z and Lorde.) Or she could’ve gone to the opposite extreme, raging against her exclusion from an honor to which she, as one of the most successful pop musicians in the world, felt entitled. Instead—ever beholden to the opinions of others—she accepts the outcome as a valid criticism of her latest album. At this point in her career, Swift is still striving for the approval she sought as a teenage country prodigy. “My entire moral code is a need to be thought of as good,” she admits early in the film. The cursory, unfocused, overly stage-managed but occasionally fascinating Miss Americana is, more than anything else, the story of how a pop star stopped worrying and learned to speak her mind.

Directed by Lana Wilson, a filmmaker best known for such dead-serious fare as the acclaimed 2013 documentary After Tiller, about late-term abortion providers, the movie is a bit of a hodgepodge. Interviews that read as intimate but don’t always provide new insight into Swift’s experience sit alongside performance footage and frustratingly short clips of casual hangouts with friends and family. A scene in which she, her beloved mom Andrea and Andrea’s giant dog endure turbulence at mealtime on an airplane is pure physical comedy. (Pets, particularly Swift’s cats, get a lot of screen time in the doc.) In the studio, we watch her bang out hits from last year’s swooning comeback album Lover with a pro’s finesse and the infectious glee of a musician who savors the songwriting process. The result is less a cohesive story than a patchwork of mismatched topics and situations that Wilson attempts to sew together with threads of an extremely public, ever-intensifying Taylor Swift narrative.

Those lucky few who don’t do social media or follow celebrity news might not realize that the singer had a rocky few years immediately after 1989’s triumph—by the standards of an industry juggernaut who never stopped selling out stadiums or releasing hit records, at least. April 2016 brought Kanye West’s “Famous,” on which the rapper muses, “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/Why? I made that bitch famous” (a reference to that time, seven years earlier, when he’d humiliated both Swift and himself by interrupting her MTV VMAs acceptance speech to protest that “Beyoncé has one of the best videos of all time”). The conflict escalated on social media. Meanwhile, during the all-important 2016 presidential election, Swift declined to endorse either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, in a move that was widely perceived as self-serving.

This well-documented drama is rehashed at a length that feels excessive in a film that runs less than 90 minutes. Wilson digs up what feels like every single snarky blog post, nasty hashtag and invasive, if also somewhat inane, red-carpet interview. Swift frames the VMAs incident, which happened when she was 19, as a formative trauma. Wilson’s aim is clearly to contrast the singer’s nearly lifelong identity as America’s sweetheart—a rise recounted in montages that follow her rise from tween Nashville newbie to teen country phenom to 20-something pop eminence—with a period in which she increasingly found herself in the cultural crosshairs, tarred as a liar, a selfish careerist, a privileged white woman eager to paint herself as a victim.

As Swift—who, to her credit, comes across as intelligent, articulate, genuine and self-critical offstage—points out in Miss Americana, it’s become impossible for her to do anything without inviting the accusation that everything she does is calculated. Reputation, an attempt to hit back at the haters and in all likelihood regain control of the narrative by authoring her own cartoonish, self-deprecating villain edit, was a case in point. Especially with that history in mind, Wilson’s effort to recount how her subject became the brave, new, outspoken Taylor is undermined by the fact that she’s allowed to sidestep some obvious questions: What’s going on with Swift and her boyfriend Joe Alwyn? What factored into her decision to appear in the critically maligned Cats? How does she parse the complicated racial and gender politics underlying her feud with Kanye? Why did it take her so long to denounce the white supremacists who notoriously made her their patron saint, dubbing Swift an “Aryan goddess”?

The film does address why Swift stayed mum on such mainstream political debates as the 2016 election, during which everyone from the lowliest reality TV stars to Beyoncé and Oprah entered the fray. Convinced that no one wanted to hear the opinions of a young entertainer and cowed by the example of the Dixie Chicks, who alienated conservative country listeners by vocally opposing the Iraq War, she followed her team’s advice to keep her views to herself. As she tells it, facing down a DJ who groped her, in a high-profile sexual assault case that she won, was what convinced her speak out in defense of her beliefs. Wilson captures her ranting, in her own enviably eloquent way, in support of the Violence Against Women Act. Miss Americana culminates in a thrilling scene where she faces down a cabal of middle-aged white guys—including her father—who don’t want her to come out against right-wing Tennessee Senate candidate Marsha Blackburn in the 2018 midterms (who would win a narrow victory despite Swift’s efforts). She does it anyway, fans, managers and relatives who disagree be damned. Because, Swift insists, the election is a matter of “right and wrong.” Finally, it seems the old, good-girl Taylor really is dead.

This isn’t the only moment in the film that reveals more about Swift’s personality, struggles and state of mind than so many reflections on getting heckled by Kanye. In another moving scene, she speaks for the first time about an eating disorder that for many years had her scrutinizing the way her body looked in every poorly composed paparazzi photo and starving to fit into a size 00. Are these “calculated” disclosures? The long list of glaring omissions—as well as Wilson’s reticence to investigate how this political awakening has affected her daily life offstage and outside the boardroom—make it hard to argue otherwise. Yet they do come across as genuine. With a more elegant, purposeful structure or at least more time to explore her toughest choices, Miss Americana might have given fans a satisfying portrait of the real Taylor Swift. As is, it’s more like a sketch. And that’s a shame. After an album as bright and vivid as Lover, I can’t imagine I was the only one hoping for more color.

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