A superstar opens up in Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry [Apple TV+ review]

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Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry
She's young, she's human, get used to it.
Photo: Apple TV+

With Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry, the young pop star gets a showcase and a bio-doc, which means she’s gotten so hugely popular that people demanded to know more about her.

The good news is, Eilish is a humble and interesting subject. The bad news: Being a depressed teenager with high-tension demands placed upon you isn’t the easiest thing in the world.

Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry review

A true overnight sensation (and fun proof that we can still have those in a time where most of our “art” is strictly regulated product), Eilish quickly became America’s favorite singer and performer. With her off-kilter fashion choices, her down-to-earth demeanor, her slick use of social media, and her humble, homeschooled origins, there wasn’t much not to like about her.

Of course, there were still a few question marks in her story. What’s it like being a world-famous, Grammy-winning superstar with Tourette’s syndrome who isn’t even old enough to drink? That’s what producer/director R.J. Cutler‘s new documentary hopes to show the world: a few months in Eilish’s shoes.

You just want what you can’t have

The first time I heard who Billie Eilish was came about 17 minutes before the nothing of a controversy unfolded as people found out she hadn’t heard of Van Halen. She got famous at 13, and has sold more records than she’s had seconds of life. She’s also smart, talented, grounded and human. I wasn’t really upset she hadn’t heard of the band that played “Runnin’ with the Devil.”

Every generation reinvents pop music, using what it needs and discarding the rest. This isn’t good or bad — it’s just how culture works. Furthermore, I found it telling that people were upset that Eilish didn’t share their reference points. She was achieving things most people could never dream of doing. Perhaps unfairly, she’ll be a once-in-a-generation star, getting famous for her art while others don’t. This is the unspeakably cruel way that fame and art work.

The young singer bares her soul in <em>Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry.</em>
The young singer bares her soul in Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry.
Photo: Apple TV+

I’m not your party favor

If The World’s a Little Blurry serves a purpose beyond being the first movie to document Eilish’s rise to stardom and creative process, it’s that it showcases that, though she may have gaps in her knowledge of music history (forgivable), she has a preternatural understanding of her place in culture right now. She doesn’t take fame for granted. She agonizes over the songs she writes and how they could possibly be perceived. She’s a very, very smart and savvy teenager, but she’s not any less human or likable for her understanding.

There’s a moment where she talks about her love of Justin Bieber (whose presence is something like a shadow or crooked mirror of Eilish’s career) and it’s really something to remember living through his rise to stardom and how deeply that seemed to shake his being to its core. Bieber silently hugging Eilish, the two of them the only people on earth who can truly understand what it is to be this kind of known, is a far more affecting moment than I anticipated. If you look at pictures of him now, and you remember what he looked like as a kid, it can be a shocking experience.

Having sat through that process like the rest of us, Eilish seems armed against the vicious nature of pop stardom. That’s a huge relief, considering how vulnerable she is in so many other regards. As Framing Britney Spears lately showed, the tabloid industry feeds off young celebrities who can’t protect themselves. It’s more than a little reassuring that the next generation of artists won’t be chewed up and spit out like they once were. Or, at bottom, that they’ll know what the hell’s going on.

Part of this is because the gap between Eilish and her fans has all but evaporated, as this movie’s countless shots of her falling into the arms of her fans after shows illustrate. Her fans are all about her age, they’re all on social media just like her, and they’re as wary as she is of the narratives that people wish to affix to famous people.

But we can’t change the weather

The movie itself is a mix of pretty standard rise-to-power, behind-the-scenes footage of young Eilish’s career, with brother and songwriting collaborator Finneas, and on-the-ground reporting of her tour. In the past, she’s driven but human. In the present, her body routinely fails her, her friends make her feel isolated, her Tourette’s flairs up at inconvenient times, her creepy boyfriend puts her through a raft of emotional abuse, she gets sick of the things her managers ask of her, but she wins every Grammy there is to win.

I think the documentary does a better-than-average job contextualizing all this. The World’s a Little Blurry never quite loses sight of the privilege associated with being Eilish, while also finding space to remember that, at heart, she’s a teen girl like any other.

Her father gets the film’s most touching moment when, after letting Billie drive off for the first time after getting her license, he must explain his emotions to the camera. He can’t very well keep this girl from living, even as she’s going to make mistakes that are going to hurt her and him alike, because he was allowed to make those mistakes. Just because she’s one of the most famous women alive, should that make her immune to bad decisions, to living? Should she be protected from normal life?

The movie doesn’t quite position itself as a documentary about these things, but these questions are in there and they illuminate the more prosaic passages about the vicissitudes of life on the road. I don’t think The World’s a Little Blurry will change anyone’s mind about Eilish. But it is quite well done, and she comes across as about as normal a superstar as we’ve got. Not bad for a woman who’s just old enough to vote.

Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry on Apple TV+

Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry premieres on Apple TV+ this Friday, Feb. 26.

Rated: R

Watch on: Apple TV+

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.