In early 2008, the life of Britney Spears had seemingly taken a desperate turn. Her marriage to Kevin Federline had come to an end; she had lost custody of her two children; and, in the glare of the paparazzi, she had shaved off all her hair. Grabbing the clippers in the glass-fronted salon, she is reported to have said: “I don’t want anyone touching me. I’m tired of everybody touching me.” In Framing Britney Spears, a documentary by The New York Times, we are shown a clip from that same year, in which a game-show contestant is asked to name “something Britney Spears has lost”. Among the correct answers lit up on a giant scoreboard are “her husband”, “her hair” and “her mind”.
The film provides a largely chronological account of the singer’s life, told through archive interviews, home movie footage, concert clips and photographs, plus conversations with those who have known her – among them her former assistant Felicia Culotta (not among them her father, Jamie, or any of her close family or friends). It shows the misogyny and ruthlessness with which she has been treated by the music industry, the media and a rubbernecking public.
Certainly, there’s a deep sadness in the juxtaposition of the late-teenage Britney, skin shimmering, teeth glistening, radiating warmth and good cheer, and the brittle, tearful Britney of 10 years later, trapped in the headlights of fame. At the start of Spears’ career, her image was a tightly controlled marketing experiment – to the young girls who bought her records, she was a cool older sister, but for men she represented something darker, a Lolita-esque temptress in bunches and knee socks. But within a few years, that control had crumbled and the world took ownership of her image, presenting her variously as immoral, insane, a terrible mother and a punchline on a gameshow.
There are clear similarities between this film and Asif Kapadia’s Amy Winehouse documentary Amy, not least in its portrait of the ravenous paparazzi who are forever in Spears’ face or crowding around her car, all the while feigning concern at her distress. But where Amy told a sadly familiar tale of a musical talent extinguished, this one veers off in a different and strange direction as it plots Spears’ breakdown and the subsequent conservatorship that handed control of decisions over her health, business and finances to her father, who, it is claimed, had been absent throughout her childhood. Indeed, the second half has the ring of a true-crime series, complete with an awful lot of speculation, as it asks whether Spears – who is now 39 – is being exploited and controlled against her will.
The film is bookended by accounts of the #FreeBritney movement, an online mobilisation of fans who are calling for Spears’ release from the conservatorship (which, incidentally, was upheld in a court last week). At the start, these fervent devotees who say their own lives were saved by the singer come over as cranks and crackpots, though when we meet them again near the end, following an hour immersed in Spears’ agony, they appear considerably more sane. This makes for a neat narrative arc, even if it’s lacking in journalistic rigour.
Framing Britney Spears expertly underlines the cruelty of celebrity culture and asks serious questions about the way young women are treated as fair game by interviewers and those hoping to make a fast buck from a photo in a car park. But as to Spears’ competence with regard to running her affairs, or the reality of her life under the conservatorship, it can offer no hard evidence, and its positioning of Spears’ fans as her saviours would seem yet another example of her narrative being hijacked by strangers – well intentioned though they are. Perhaps the wisest pronouncement here comes from Spears’ one-time attorney Adam Streisand: “We don’t know what we don’t know.”
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