Of course it’s too early in the career of Billie Eilish to devote two hours and 20 minutes to a documentary to her accomplishments. She’s only in the midst of the first step of what I suspect will be a long and fruitful series of artistic endeavors—complete with personal and professional missteps that will be thrown under a microscope for a couple days on social media and just as quickly forgotten. But what filmmaker R.J. Cutler (The September Issue, Belushi) has pieced together in Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry is that rare opportunity to watch a superstar break out in such a colossal way, almost in real time.
While Eilish’s idol Justin Bieber was a prime example of someone whose fame grew thanks in large part to YouTube, Eilish is a product of social media and streaming services. As a result, she grew up being filmed by herself and her tight-knit family, including her brother and chief collaborator, Phineas O’Connell, and their parents, whose house Eilish lives in for the duration of the film. The timeline goes from Eilish at about 15 or 16, dropping her first mega hit, “Ocean Eyes,” through to the writing and recording of her debut album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? With tours, fan encounters and a slew of personal hangups and massive confidence issues thrown in, we’re reminded that she is still very young, somewhat isolated, and mainly just a bundle of emotions that serve her well in her songwriting but also undercut some of her most impressive achievements. The film culminates with two major events—she and Phineas turning over the demo of her eventual James Bond theme “No Time to Die,” and the beginning of her 2020 tour that had to be scrapped three shows in because of COVID-19 (which is never actually mentioned).
There’s something about watching two kids write emotionally devastating songs in a bedroom, going over lyric choices, basing most decisions on what sounds the coolest or darkest or most unnerving. With her whispery singing and Phineas’ atmospheric soundscapes behind her, Eilish finds a way to put into words the hopes, dreams, nightmares, fears and pain of teenagers (mostly girls but not always) in crisis, who dare to feel something at an age at which they aren’t always prepared to handle the enormity of how they feel. By identifying with them, Eilish gives them hope. The film reveals that she is aware of this to a certain degree and also is one of them in large part.
Beyond the recording and performing, Eilish’s day-to-day concerns involve a boyfriend named Q, who appears to have a tough time finding his place in her rising fame, though he has issues far beyond his relationship with Billie. We see how her parents are equal parts permissive yet protective of their vulnerable girl. I got no sense of them being typical stage parents, and it’s clear Eilish counts on them to protect and ground her. She’s also such a perfectionist that when she’s plagued by physical injuries while performing, she nearly cancels shows rather than give her fans bad ones. And she’s almost manic about how important it is to her to make sure fan interactions are positive for all those involved.
By being able to observe Eilish in this manner, for prolonged stretches, it’s fascinating to watch her mood swings and ability to shift from dedicated professional to youngster who’d rather not have a care in the world. She also has Tourette syndrome, and when she gets tired, sometimes she suffers from facial or neck tics that seem to frustrate her more than anything. But there are also highlights, like the occasional meeting with personal heroes like Bieber, Katy Perry and others who achieved fame young, offering sage advice and the promise of an ear if she ever needs to talk more.
Eilish’s industry accomplishments (like massive record sales and armloads of Grammys) are blessedly kept to a minimum, and director Cutler uses his expansive time to find out what makes this girl (17 years old as the film ends) tick, what motivates her, and what keeps her moving forward. The pandemic has given her the chance to record a new album when she probably wouldn’t have, and this film makes me even more curious and eager to see how she evolves from where we leave her in The World’s a Little Blurry. As she grows older, matures, and experiences life a bit, it seems destined that her writing will become more enriched and lived in. The film makes me excited for the person Eilish is going to become, as much as it celebrates where she comes from and what influences and impacts her. The film is too long, for sure, but that doesn’t take away from how impressive it is at points.
The film is now available to stream on Apple TV+.
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