Good news: you no longer have to ask your friends for a dodgy YouTube link to be able to watch Framing Britney Spears. The incendiary documentary about the 39-year-old pop icon’s questionable conservatorship, which saw her lose the freedom to manage her own affairs and finances twelve years ago, finally airs in the UK today – and it makes for upsetting viewing. While it may not change anything for her legally, it reasserts her legacy as a once-in-a-generation star – and decisively shames the misogynists and rubberneckers who have dogged her career.
Since airing in the US earlier this month, the New York Times-produced doc has dominated the cultural conversation. Anyone who might have believed the dedicated online #FreeBritney movement to be a bunch of OTT superfan conspiracy theorists will have to think twice: through clear and careful reporting, Framing Britney Spears suggests that there is something deeply troubling going on with regards to her father’s control over her life (court hearings to try and have him removed as a conservator are ongoing).
If you’re looking for salacious revelations, look elsewhere: this is an unfussy, careful and precise timeline of Spears’ rise to worldwide fame, the subsequent obsession with her that soared out of control, and the painful public breakdown that led to the controversial conservatorship in 2008. In the future, more comprehensive documentaries will surely be made about Spears, but alongside now-poignant footage of her as a charismatic, engaged young star, and clear, well-informed interviewees, this one is utterly gripping.
It’s hard to pick the most shocking moment. Is it when, after performing on TV at the age of 11, a middle-aged male presenter asks her if she has a boyfriend? Or perhaps the moment when one (male, again) interviewer says, “Everyone’s talking about it.” “What?” she asks, innocently - still only 17. “Well... your breasts.” The press conference where she’s asked if she’s a virgin? The woman who goes on TV and declares she wants to shoot her because she’s corrupting her children? How, as NYT critic Wesley Morris suggests, Justin Timberlake “weaponised” his Cry Me A River music video to imply Spears was to blame for their break-up? The paparazzo who asks, “How are you doing? I’m concerned about you”, while hounding her for a picture in the midst of clearly distressing custody negotiations for her children? The way Spears says “I’m scared, I’m scared, I’m scared” as she is circled by photographers? The judgemental open season on whether she was an unfit mother? Or the widely accepted mocking of Spears’s mental health in mainstream media discourse? Well, it’s hard to say.
Most startling is the reminder of how in command Spears was at the height of her powers. As sponsorship deals pile in, she tells one interviewer, “I know all the ins and outs of what I’m doing, I know all the contracts.” In another, she’s asked how easy it is for her to be in control of what she’s doing. It’s because she has control that she is where she is today, she responds - “You have to, otherwise you get sucked in by people who are not necessary.” It’s almost unbearably prophetic. And she was much cleverer than she was ever given credit for: as front pages screamed ‘TOO SEXY TOO SOON?’ she released songs like Oops! I Did It Again and I’m Not A Girl Not Yet A Woman that knowingly played with public perceptions of her.
Perhaps the biggest coup is an interview with former assistant Felicia Culotta. Having known Britney from the age of five, she was asked by her mother to chaperone her to a work meeting when she first signed a record deal and ended up becoming an omnipresent figure in her early career. She describes Spears’s working-class background, and how, when she first began to taste success, she drove around the town where she grew up handing out $100 bills at Christmas. “I wanted to remind people of why we fell in love with her in the first place,” she says, of why she took part.
There are serious questions to be asked here, and it is right that they are. Why is a high-functioning woman, who has performed sell-out tours and a successful Las Vegas residency, under a legal arrangement intended for people who are ‘incompetent’? And why did her father’s legal team say that the conservatorship should be thought of as a ‘hybrid business model’? Why has it been so many years since a journalist was able to interview Spears?
As a member of the Godney generation (an affectionate nickname for fans who think she is God), I grew up with Britney. I made up dance routines to her songs after school, I taped her songs off the radio until I could get the CD for my birthday, and, basically, I wanted to be her. I know that millions will have memories like this, and something about the intense, collective hunger to watch this film is incredibly powerful. It isn’t coming from a voyeuristic need to watch someone famous fall apart, but an unspoken sense that Spears was deeply wronged, and that the media has never really reckoned with what happened to her. This documentary finally vindicates that theory.
Framing Britney Spears is on Sky Documentaries and NOW TV at 9pm on Feb 16