If the makers of “Britney vs Spears” could add one more update to the end of the documentary’s already lengthy text crawl of developments following the film’s completion, they’d have fresh material. On Wednesday, a judge agreed to the suspension of the pop star’s father, James P. Spears, as her conservator.
If you have managed to ignore the unfolding story of the conservatorship and the solidarity movement #freebritney, the director Erin Lee Carr’s documentary may serve as a timely if vexing primer. The conservatorship, a legal arrangement that gave the star’s father and others a kind of absolute guardianship over her, was put into place 13 years ago. At the time, it was temporary. The pop music phenom is now 39 years old. In the summer, the battle over the situation hit warp speed.
“Britney vs Spears” quickly establishes the magnitude of the performer’s reach with images of packed concerts and rapt fans (so many screaming teenage girls), and clips from her music videos, including the one that put her on the map: “… Baby One More Time” (1998), in which she appeared famously in schoolgirl garb.
Relying on a great deal of pickup footage — some from news coverage, some seemingly from hounding paparazzi — “Britney vs Spears” can be dizzying and dismaying. More often, the documentary provides an apt example of what it must be like to be a celebrity surrounded by intimates whose agendas appear murky at best. Throughout, the viewer must factor in a good measure of suspicion. Which declarations are accurate? Which are biased? When are they both? Why did this person agree to an interview?
Among those who speak on Spears’s behalf but also have their own freighted relationship with her fame and wealth are her sometime manager and friend Sam Lutfi, who rates high on the ick-scale, and an ex-boyfriend Adnan Ghalib, who met Spears when he was part of the pack of paparazzi chasing her. Even the superfan Jordan Miller, who helped start the #freebritney movement, seems a little too pumped for his adjacent fame.
A welcome exception to the iffier interviewees is Tony Chicotel, a lawyer and expert on long-term-care rights and California law. The filmmakers call on him to help navigate the ins and outs of the conservatorship. Like guardianship, the court-appointed conservator role exists to protect people who aren’t able — physically, mentally — to make decisions. (The recent comedy “I Care a Lot” made dark sport of the potential for abuse, with Rosamund Pike playing a court-appointed conservator who preyed on older people.)
The journalist Jenny Eliscu, who wrote about Spears for Rolling Stone, plays a significant role in the film (she’s an executive producer). In 2020, the film’s makers received a load of leaked documents about the conservatorship. In a framing device that tries a little too hard to put some distance between “Britney vs Spears” and more exploitative celebrity coverage, Eliscu and the director sit in front of those documents, a Woodward and Bernstein for an Instagram age. (In February, “Framing Britney Spears,” a documentary produced by The New York Times, was released, which I haven’t seen. The same goes for a follow-up, “Controlling Britney Spears.”)
To her credit, Carr is transparent about where her sympathies lie. Early on, the camera peruses a girl’s bedroom, focusing in on a pink boombox. The director confesses in voice-over that at 10, she was obsessed with Spears and “… Baby One More Time.” So much so her father, David Carr, asked, “Why are you listening to that song over and over?” Later in the film, Eliscu tears up as she tells the story of secreting a legal document to Spears at a hotel.
“Britney vs Spears” underscores how tricky it is to make a credible documentary about a celebrity under duress without repeating many of the gestures that treat fame as the sine qua non of American culture. Even the Oscar-winning documentary “Amy,” a far more elegant dive into a tough pop-music story, could not elude fully the sense that the way it told Amy Winehouse’s story also replicated at times a suspect fascination.
This documentary doesn’t dodge the fact that at the time the conservatorship was put in place, there was a great deal unspooling in Spears’s life that had her family concerned about her emotional — and financial — welfare. The year before the court granted James Spears control of his daughter, Britney had divorced Kevin Federline. The couple had two very young sons, who were the subject of custody skirmishes. Amid those tensions, Britney Spears’s behavior was erratic.
But what happens when the intervention becomes the problem? The Britney Spears factory — and its myriad subsidiaries — remained robust, golden-goosed by her output. There was a cottage industry of lawyers employed by the conservatorship. The concert footage, the music videos and the clips of Spears rehearsing dance steps all appear to attest to a hard-working ethos and seem to challenge the notion that she could not conduct her affairs. The greatest lesson of “Britney vs Spears” might be how exploitable the role of conservator can become.
Still, something remarkable happens at the end of the film. In a deft move, Carr uses excerpts from a recording made at a court hearing in June. After all those talking heads speaking about her, speaking for her, Britney speaks. And what she says has a sorrow and a fury, but also a clarity and defiance.
Lisa Kennedy writes on popular culture, race and gender. She lives in Denver, Colo.
Britney vs Spears
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes. Watch on Netflix.
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