About 40 minutes into Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry, a new documentary by director R.J. Cutler, the teen pop star gets into a tense faceoff with her mother, Maggie Baird, and a record-label rep about drugs.* Not that Eilish (full name Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O’Connell)—at the time 17 and preparing to release a debut album that would go on to break various streaming, chart, and Grammy records—is actually doing any drugs. In fact, the three of them are looking over a video in which Eilish and her older brother/primary collaborator Finneas are discussing their anti-drug song “Xanny,” and Eilish sums up any intoxicant use as basically “killing yourself.” Chelsea from Interscope gently raises a concern: Is Eilish sure she wants to make such an unequivocal statement? What if she changes her mind when she’s older, gets caught using drugs or booze or cigarettes, and people drag her as a hypocrite?
Eilish thinks Chelsea may have a point. Her mom decidedly doesn’t. “Are you actually not going to let her be authentic to who she is now, in case she grows up to do drugs?” she asks Chelsea, and then, to her daughter: “What, do you have to plan right now that every person who does what you do has to grow up and fuck up that way … so you don’t get hate later when you do it? You know, why are your parents with you all the time? I mean, you’ve got a whole army of people trying to help you not decide to destroy your life, like people in your shoes have done before.”
Throughout her mom’s rant, Eilish wears the rictus grin that’s the universal teen signal for “yikes” (one of her gifts is a face that’s always ready to contort into a real-life emoji). The scene cuts away without resolution, though fans will know that Eilish kept up her public stance on substances. But it is one of the few spots in the documentary’s 140 minutes where the quiet part gets said out loud, the thing that will be in the back of any adult pop-culture observer’s mind while viewing the film’s depiction of its charming subject’s meteoric rise and changing life over the course of a few short years: Is Billie Eilish going to be OK?
The exchange in the film doesn’t refer to the most directly personal, drug abuse–related case at the time for Eilish—the death of her friend XXXTentacion, the controversial rapper who was killed by gunfire at age 20 in June 2018; Eilish drew considerable heat for mourning him, in spite of his abusive criminal record. But the recent deaths of so many young hip-hop stars generally take place in contexts quite distant from the issues facing a white teen star like Eilish. What’s more likely on everyone’s mind while watching that conversation is the lineage of child stars from Judy Garland to Michael Jackson to River Phoenix to Lindsay Lohan to Eilish’s own childhood idol (and later friend and collaborator) Justin Bieber who have fallen into tragic, sometimes fatal cycles because of the distorting effects of growing up in the entertainment industry and in the glare of public scrutiny.
What nobody involved on- or off-screen in the making of this film could have known is that it would have ended up being released immediately after another documentary that’s focused attention on that child star syndrome, the New York Times/Hulu production Framing Britney Spears. That movie indicts the media, the music industry, Spears’ family, and the public in the sexualization and hounding of the early 21st century’s most compelling pop star into a nervous breakdown and the loss of her personal autonomy under the conservatorship of her dubiously trustworthy father. It’s provoked a lot of reflection about collective complicity in cases like these, as well as personal accounts from child stars such as Mara Wilson (who starred in films such as Mrs. Doubtfire and Matilda) about their own, similar experiences in the spotlight.
As I wrote almost two years ago about the documentary Leaving Neverland, which focused on allegations of child abuse levied at Michael Jackson, the cumulative effect of these stories on me has been to lean toward getting rid of the practice of using underage performers in entertainment businesses altogether. It’s hard to say how a lot of worthwhile stories would be told without children—imagining how The Wizard of Oz could have been done without a Judy Garland is a brain-bender—but the legacy of exploitation and spiraling aftereffects makes it equally hard to claim that young stardom is at all worth it.
Billie Eilish, since her emergence into the heights of pop fame, is one of the rare cases that’s made me think that it can be done without excessive damage, if it’s handled right. As my colleague Willa Paskin wrote in her perceptive essay on Framing Britney Spears, a factor that’s too easily left out of these stories in American culture is class. Spears’ Southern family lacked the basic resources and familiarity with structures of power to protect her effectively, whereas Eilish and her brother Finneas, who were home-schooled by their clan of not wealthy but industry-savvy actor-musician-writers in Los Angeles, can be more strategic about defending themselves.
If the Britney film hadn’t come out so recently, The World’s A Little Blurry would probably be drawing more comparisons to Taylor Swift’s doc from early last year, Miss Americana—which, despite the gaps in their ages and experiences, also shows someone whose privileged family context has allowed her to maintain a lot more control over her fate than many more manipulated starlets and boytoys. Swift’s documentary still divulges that her fame had psychological consequences—between twisted body image, heavy backlash, and lost privacy—but it always seems that she’s cosseted by a team of protectors. Eilish, whose rise was less straightforward and whose parents were perhaps more eccentric and certainly less wealthy than Swift’s, still seems embedded in an almost impenetrable cocoon of support. She and Finneas are essentially a family band operating out of their childhood home, in parallel with artists like fellow L.A. sibling act Haim.
One of the consequences of this upbringing, it’s always seemed, is that Eilish has access to a fuller range of expression than almost any female teen star you could name from previous generations. There are scenes in the film where she displays her notebooks full of lyric fragments, horror cartoons, and casually dirty doodles, documents of the self-directed creative life her parents successfully instilled by keeping their kids out of conventional schooling (although the younger Eilish did get heavily involved in dance and choir programs). While her lyrics may alarm some censorious parents, they actually seem more wholesome to me for being filled with horror images and even suicidal ideation—conveying commonplace, unvarnished teen thoughts, not mock-innocent sexual teasing or any superimposed “role model” charades. Early in the film, she says she doesn’t like to think of her listeners as fans but instead as peers, people who like her because they’ve gone through the same things, and that remains a touchstone throughout the two years or so that Cutler films her.
The style of the documentary reinforces this sense of autonomy. It’s impossible to sort out the threads by guesswork, but compared with confessional-but-controlled documentaries commissioned by the likes of Swift, Bieber, Katy Perry, or Beyoncé, this movie doesn’t feel much like propaganda. There are no talking heads. Instead, we get to be flies on the wall for everything from the siblings’ songwriting process and a stressful European tour to Eilish celebrating passing her driver’s test and getting her dream car, a matte-black Dodge Challenger, as a gift from her record label. Cutler—the maker of acclaimed documentaries like The War Room and The September Issue—references precedents like the warts-and-all 1960s Bob Dylan documentary Dont Look Back, and the O’Connell family agreed to give him final cut. Eilish has said that she was both thrilled and shocked when she saw the edit and the way it exposed her unhealthy relationship with ex-boyfriend “Q,” always previously hidden, as well as stage injuries, loneliness, tic attacks (she has a relatively mild version of Tourette’s), and misgivings about continuing her career at all. At one point, in the midst of an argument with Finneas about a song they’re writing, she even says she’s never going to make a second album. (This has, unsurprisingly, turned out to not be the case.)
On the other hand, Eilish is now 19 years old (compared with 13 when her career began), and in recent interviews she’s said that some of the documentary catches her at a low point in both coping with adolescent depression and adjusting to newfound fame. She says she’s started really enjoying songwriting again, and appreciating the platform her celebrity affords to talk about causes that matter to her, like climate change and racial justice. I hope that’s true. I’ve been reminded this week—by watching the 2020 HBO documentary Showbiz Kids and reading an essay from the actor, writer, and former teen fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson—that young stars’ interpretations of what’s happening to them can change radically in retrospect. Eilish’s impressive willfulness and emotional directness doesn’t prevent her from having to take out restraining orders on stalkers who keep watch on her family’s famously modest neighborhood home.
In one of the songs Eilish has released during the pandemic, “Therefore I Am,” she lyrically rebukes people like her ex, no doubt some of the media, and invasive fans who think they know her when they don’t. In the video, she spits out those lines while dancing through a closed shopping mall and scarfing down junk food, a snap back at internet idiots who denigrated her when a tabloid picture revealed that she had a figure underneath those baggy clothes. She’s said in the past that body dysmorphia has been one of her biggest challenges, which extended to cutting and some of her suicidal thoughts—but that the wonderfully weird, amorphous (and obviously hip-hop-inspired) outfits she adopted have become a creative outlet of their own. Wherever she goes with music, there’s a possible secondary avenue in her visual inventiveness, which shows up all over this documentary (at one point, she rehearses specific camera angles for a video in the family’s backyard, making her mom pretend to drink a glass of black goo and have it leak out of her eyes).
There are sections in The World’s a Little Blurry that did lead me to worry about Billie Eilish, if only in a little, blurry way. Much more of it made me look forward optimistically to her long artistic career to come. Like one of her own heroes, teen climate activist Greta Thunberg, Eilish is incredible at telling truths. Attempting that on a mass scale is a risky business, but it’s easy to imagine why the very young might find it urgent right now. I hope we can listen and not punish them for it, like (as mother Maggie puts it) people in their shoes have been before.
Correction, Feb. 26, 2021: This piece originally misidentified Maggie Baird as Maggie Baird O’Connell.