By age 19, the singer Billie Eilish has reached heights of fame and success that feel both otherworldly and familiar, carried by the same tides of generational mega-popularity that have buoyed such teen music idols as Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus before her, but with a Gen Z twist. It’s Eilish publicity canon that the then-15-year-old rocketed to social media fame after her older brother and co-producer, Finneas, posted a song they recorded for her dance class, Ocean Eyes, to Soundcloud, that they recorded her smash debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? in his childhood bedroom, that the two MaGyver everyday sounds – a dentist’s drill, the slurp of Eilish’s Invisalign retainer – into songs that garner billions of streams.
These are not myths; as captured in RJ Cutler’s mesmerizing and generous Apple TV+ documentary The World’s A Little Blurry, Eilish did, indeed, spend these supersonic teenage years at her family’s modest house in Los Angeles; she and Finneas do compose their music in his bedroom with such organic sibling telepathy it seems almost too casual to be the omnipresent dark-pop hits Bad Guy or Bury a Friend. But over the course of nearly two and a half hours, The World’s A Little Blurry offers a fascinating rejoinder to any cynicism that this could be image maintenance for a teenage superstar. The verité-style documentary, filmed from late 2018 through Eilish’s Grammys sweep in 2020 (11 awards, including album of the year), observes an enviably talented and more enviably self-possessed young woman handling the twin rocketships of superstardom and adolescence with astounding awareness, if not always control.
The trust afforded to Cutler (The War Room, The September Issue) by Eilish’s family – mom Maggie Baird and father Patrick O’Connell, both near-constant presences – is evident. The camera roves through the family home, dropping in on family arguments (Maggie and Finneas, and then Eilish, arguing over the latter’s reluctance to make an “accessible” hit) and Eilish’s bedroom the morning of her Grammy nominations. The film glides on the always-magnetic juxtaposition of superstardom weirdness with relatability – Eilish DM-ing her idol, Justin Bieber, posting to her millions of Instagram followers, selecting her signature baggy couture outfits for tour; Eilish studying for her driver’s permit, complaining about her family’s lame cars, or groaning when her father compares new music to a Duncan Sheik song.
It also includes all the promises of authenticity we’ve come to expect from modern music documentaries: quiet moments, the stress of touring, the vertigo of rapid on-set fame, work process competency porn. But whereas Taylor Swift’s Miss Americana, released last year on Netflix, often felt like a meticulous, if entertaining, propaganda project, The World’s a Little Blurry portrays an artist for whom the idea of “authenticity” is both artistically important and for filming, passé.
Eilish was born in 2001 and grew up accustomed to documentation, by family and oneself; as she told Colbert this week, “I don’t really change in front of a camera.” Part of the hook of The World’s A Little Blurry’s is to watch a star who understands, as do her fans who grew up on Snapchat and Instagram, that to be on camera is to be both yourself and not – the calibration is so fluid, and so ubiquitous, as to be nearly indistinguishable, or maybe more accurately, irrelevant, to “real” life.
Thus Cutler’s film feels like watching Eilish be Eilish, even as she mugs to the camera in the style of her favorite show, The Office. The film has its fair share of intimate moments: a tic-attack from her Tourettes, a forlorn phone call with a distant, inattentive (now-ex) boyfriend she has not previously discussed with the public, quiet backstage disappointment with what she considers to be a subpar Coachella performance (“You forgot some words to a new song, big deal, who cares?” O’Connell, consistently the most dad of dads, supplies).
Its strongest element, aside from Eilish herself, is the generosity and empathy afforded to the experience of fandom. Eilish, so devoted to Bieber as a 12-year-old that Baird considered putting her in therapy, speaks fluently of the hyper-intense adoration lobbed at her by millions, predominantly teenage girls. When she breaks down for a full 30 seconds upon meeting him, in one of The World’s A Little Blurry’s best scenes, it may as well be any one of the crying, alight faces in her crowds. The chasmic emotion, the consuming devotion for your artistic heroes, the way it makes even the darkest recesses of your brain feel temporarily OK – that, for Eilish, her fans, and viewers, is strikingly real.