One of the first credits in the documentary “Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry” is “An Interscope Films Production,” which isn’t the most encouraging opening. When the company that manages an artist and releases their music is also behind a film about that artist, you expect lots of access but perhaps not so much objectivity.
Then again, it’s pretty much guaranteed that most music-oriented docs these days have ties to the artists’ business interests — and besides, Billie Eilish is not the kind of musician who seems inclined to be looking for an airbrushed vanity piece. The music she’s been making since she was 13 constitutes her own authorized portrait of sorts, and it’s a portrait that is raw and unkempt and human; if the point of her music is to capture a young life in all its messiness, uncertainty and pain, the company that releases that music must know that the only satisfying documentary had better be raw and messy, too.
R.J. Cutler’s film is also simultaneously intimate and expansive — intimate because it’s made up of cinema verité footage shot in bedrooms, kitchens and dressing rooms for virtually all of Eilish’s teen years, expansive because it’s two hours and 20 minutes long and sometimes seems to watch her grow up in real time. It’s not full of revelations about a young woman who has always been frank and open about her insecurities and mental health issues, but it feels honest and delivers some nuance in the way it celebrates and explores its subject.
Cutler, whose other films include “The September Issue,” “Listen to Me Marlon” and the recent “Belushi,” assembled the film both from footage he shot and from the private moments he got from the family: footage from a GoPro in the corner of the bedroom where Eilish and her brother, Finneas O’Connell, made much of her music; videos shot by her mom; and a few sequences where you have to wonder why somebody in the family kept a camera running.
There are no talking heads to put it all in context and no sit-down interviews where Eilish explains herself. But at the same time, you can’t really call this a fly-on-the-wall documentary, because Eilish is always aware that there’s a camera on her, and she can’t help but address it every so often. (Her mother, actress/singer Maggie Baird, seems even more eager to chime in directly to the camera; suffice it to say that there’s a lot of mom in this movie.)
The film essentially chronicles Eilish making and then promoting “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?,” the debut album that was one of 2019’s best-sellers and won her five Grammys. But more than that, it chronicles her adjusting to the idea of stardom, grappling with depression and trying to cope with the adulation that comes from her fans. (“I don’t think of them as fans, ever,” she says. “They’re a part of me.”)
For all the exuberance of her onstage performances and the deep connection she forges with her fans (or whatever term she’d prefer), “The World’s a Little Blurry” is grounded in uncertainty and pain, and in the confusion of a teenage girl whose ability to put that uncertainty and pain into music has made her an invaluable voice for so many. But even that ability can be painful to her: “I hate writing songs,” she says to her mother and brother when they gently try to get her to think about being more accessible. “I’ve always hated it. It really tortures me.”
When Eilish is not being tortured, or not torturing herself, she’s also a teenager, yearning for a matte-black Dodge Challenger (she gets it) and confessing to a preteen obsession with Justin Bieber that was so strong she would sob into her pillow thinking that when she grew older and got a boyfriend, her love for him could never be as strong as her love for Justin.
Of course, she might have been right: We see glimpses of her with her boyfriend, “Q” (Brandon Adams), before they break up, and we also see her backstage at Coachella when Bieber, a fan of her music, first approaches her and says hell0. She seems happy enough with Q, though he’s a bit neglectful, but she’s completely overcome by Bieber, hiding because she can’t face him and then embracing him and sobbing in his arms. (Later, he sends her a very sweet text: “You are beyond special. Thank you for tonight. It meant just as much to me as it did to you.”)
Cutler keeps the various strands of Eilish’s life balanced as the film goes on, moving from personal struggles to business meetings to family life (not one but two trips to the DMV!) to concert performances. At one point, we see Eilish sitting in her brother’s room, musing about how she wants to write a song called “Bad Guy.” (She would, of course, and it would be her biggest hit.) At another, she describes her days of hiding razor blades around the house to cut herself: “I was locking myself in the bathroom and making myself bleed because I thought I deserved it.”
The film takes the Billie Eilish that you hear in the music and fleshes her out not with big revelations but with dozens of small moments. It can drag at times, particularly in the second half after the brief card that reads “INTERMISSION,” but it’s clear that the target audience for “The World’s a Little Blurry” will embrace two hours and 20 minutes and then some. (Cutler, by the way, has said that the first cut was about 24 hours long.)
It all culminates at the Grammys in January 2020, where the 18-year-old had a surreal night in winning Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best New Artist (a remarkable grand slam only slightly diminished by the fact that the only other person to ever do it was the forgettable soft-rock singer Christopher Cross). The film interweaves footage from throughout Eilish’s life and career into a Grammy-night montage that is so triumphant you have to wonder if she’d be comfortable with the idea that winning an armful of awards is the crowing moment of her life and career.
But then she gets a congratulatory video call from Justin Bieber, which makes her all self-conscious and flustered. And that does seem like the true culmination of the story in “The World’s a Little Blurry.”