Three New Britney Spears Documentaries Tell a Chilling Tale About the Bystander Effect

7 minute read

For about a decade, it seemed that no one knew what was going on with Britney Spears. She toured the world, released albums, had a hit Las Vegas residency. And when it comes to celebrities the tabloid media loves to pile on, it’s easy to assume that no news is good news. It wasn’t until 2019, when a cascade of worrisome stories, from a canceled second Vegas residency to Spears’ admission to a psychiatric facility, emerged, that fans sounded a new alarm over the conservatorship she has lived under since 2008. Now, following her harrowing court statement in June and in advance of another hearing on Sept. 29, three new programs—Netflix’s Britney vs. Spears, FX and the New York TimesControlling Britney Spears and CNN’s Toxic: Britney Spears’ Battle for Freedom—have made the truth impossible to ignore. Many people knew what was going on with Britney, it turns out. But no one managed to stop it.

That much was apparent from Controlling, the first and most effective doc to appear this past week—a follow-up to FX and the TimesFraming Britney Spears, whose clear-eyed chronology of her life and career galvanized a second wave of empathy for the singer upon its release in February. Having gotten the background out of the way in that first feature, director Samantha Stark and producer Liz Day focus on getting insiders to go on the record with behind-the-scenes details of what has historically been a poorly understood conservatorship. The revelations in this concise, illuminating, polished but stylistically spartan feature are indeed damning.

“Security was put in the position to be prison guards, essentially,” says Alex Vlasov, a former deputy to Black Box Security founder Edan Yemini, whose firm was contracted by Spears’ father and conservator Jamie Spears. In an on-camera interview, he explains that the conservatorship monitored all of Britney’s email and text messages via an iPad that mirrored her iPhone. Perhaps the biggest bombshell in Controlling—or any of the new docs—is Vlasov’s allegation, supported by 180 hours of audio that he provided to the Times, that Black Box and Jamie recorded in Britney’s bedroom. In an echo of the singer’s June statement, Vlasov also offers the opinion that Jamie had “an obsession with the men in Britney’s life.”

While several former employees and associates paint the conservatorship as authoritarian and remark upon its representatives’ stinginess with a woman who was bringing in tens of millions of dollars every year, I was particularly struck by an anecdote in which longtime head of wardrobe Tish Yates recounts that a representative of the conservatorship refused to let Britney buy an inexpensive pair of shoes at the mall. “She doesn’t have any money to be spending on Skechers,” Yates recalls being told. This is hardly the greatest tragedy of Spears’ life under conservatorship, but the pettiness is telling. To an outside observer it certainly appears that, as Adam Serwer famously wrote with regard to Donald Trump’s presidency, the cruelty is the point.

In Toxic, a CNN special report that aired on Sunday, Britney’s former promotional tour manager, Dan George, offers the similarly small yet haunting allegation that Jamie prohibited his daughter from reading any book that wasn’t explicitly “Christian.” Anchored by Alisyn Camerota and Chloe Melas, Toxic runs under 45 minutes after commercials and, despite sympathetic framing, adheres largely to the same flashy newsmagazine format that did Spears such a disservice in the aughts. Although there are a few on-camera conversations with insiders like George, the special leans heavily on CNN’s own archives and interviews with Ronan Farrow and Jia Tolentino, who in July published the extensive story “Britney Spears’ Conservatorship Nightmare” in The New Yorker. All told, it’s more of a cursory explainer for those who have yet to catch up on its subject’s legal ordeal than a showcase for new investigative work.

Much more substantive than Toxic is Netflix’s Britney vs. Spears. In the works since 2019 and directed by acclaimed documentarian Erin Lee Carr (Mommy Dead and Dearest, At the Heart of Gold) with help from a powerhouse team that includes Liz Garbus (What Happened, Miss Simone?), Amy Herdy (Allen v. Farrow) and journalist Jenny Eliscu, who has been reporting on Britney for two decades, the film generated quite a bit of hype before it appeared on the service Tuesday. If Controlling has stolen some of that thunder, it’s probably because the reporting it offers feels so much more up-to-date. At one point, Carr notes that it’s hard to find people outside of the conservatorship’s tight circle of trust who had access to Britney once her Vegas residency began in 2015.

That isn’t to say Britney vs. Spears has nothing worthwhile to offer. The most thoughtful, stylishly composed of the three docs, it’s framed by Carr and Eliscu’s collaborative quest to break the silence surrounding the conservatorship. Together, they page through documents and discuss elements of the story that don’t add up. Carr narrates; sometimes we see her going back and forth with a slippery interviewee. Nonfiction filmmakers, particularly in the true-crime genre, often center themselves to an extent that detracts from their subjects, but there’s merit in Carr’s choice to show her work. It allows us to watch the wheels of the conservatorship turn against her investigation. After digging into a mysterious woman named Lou Taylor—a former business manager who seemed to be heavily involved in Jamie’s religious life—she receives a fiery letter from Taylor’s lawyer Charles J. Harder (best known for representing Trump against Stormy Daniels and Hulk Hogan against Gawker). “I won’t touch that one!” Britney’s longtime assistant Felicia Culotta exclaims when asked about Taylor. “She will chew me up and spit me out!”

Carr’s account is strongest in shining light on the early years of the conservatorship while elegantly steering away from the exploitative images of Britney—shaving her head, or getting strapped to a gurney—that sold magazines in the late ’00s. Her former attorney Adam Streisand recounts being dismissed from an early conservatorship hearing, with the judge citing a report that pronounced his client incapable of retaining counsel. Andrew Gallery, a director and writer who grew close to the star while working on the 2008 MTV doc Britney: For the Record, reads a crushing letter about her predicament that she wanted him to share. He says that he was more or less cut off from Britney when the conservatorship sensed that he’d become her confidant. Britney vs. Spears also suggests that Sam Lutfi, an ex-manager whom Spears’ parents have accused of drugging her, might’ve been unfairly scapegoated. When someone is hurting your daughter, Lutfi tells the filmmaker, “you call the police, you call the FBI. You don’t call TMZ.”

As we turn our attention to another court date and what will hopefully be the end of a highly irregular, evidently quite harmful conservatorship, it’s worth considering that three new Britney Spears documentaries might be too many—that endless, invasive media coverage does few favors to a person for whom incontrovertible evidence of psychological stability is the only path to freedom. Yet if there’s one thing that justifies this outpouring of attention, it’s the way these accounts combine to demonstrate that even a figure as public as a pop star is not immune to the bystander effect. Hearing from so many people say they saw a woman who millions around the world care about being mistreated but couldn’t, or simply didn’t, do anything about it is heartbreaking. No matter how this awful story ends, this is one part of it that should never be erased.

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