Even Without Real Answers, Framing Britney Spears Communicates Dark Truths
The new documentary inspired by the #FreeBritney movement begins the only way it rightly could: with a montage of fans voicing their support for Britney Spears. A man with a megaphone leads a crowd in a call-and-response chant: “What do we want?” “FREE BRITNEY!” “When do we want it?” “NOW!” A series of video messages posted to social media briefly explains the pop star’s plight and offers personalized “Dear Britney” messages, expressing sentiments such as, “Your whole situation is consuming me now.” Outside a courthouse, masked protestors hold signs with slogans like “BRITNEY SPEARS DESERVES HER FREEDOM” and “FREE BRITNEY BITCH.” Eventually Spears’ own words from an old interview are looped in. She addresses the need to control your own destiny in show business and asserts her own responsibility for her success. We hear from an assortment of obnoxious podcasters and lawyers about her situation. Spears’ monologue culminates with this: “There are things out there that have been said about me that aren’t completely true. There’s a lot that people don’t know about me that I want them to know.”
Nearly two decades later, it feels like the public knows less about Britney Spears than ever. The mystery surrounding her lends a crackling tension to Framing Britney Spears, the latest installment of FX and Hulu’s documentary series The New York Times Presents. It also prevents the film, which premieres this Friday, from making any juicy revelations about the current state of Spears’ courtroom saga. Instead of breaking news, director Samantha Stark’s movie works as a portrait of powerful forces in modern America, in particular the celebrity obsession that contributed mightily to Spears’ various rises and falls. Feeling as much like a true-crime documentary as a primetime newsmagazine report, it tells an extremely sad story at the intersection of many kinds of greed, exploitation, and dysfunction.
In early 2007, worn down by relentless tabloid interest, Britney Spears shaved her head. In subsequent months she spent time in rehab, finalized her divorce from Kevin Federline, and bashed a paparazzo’s car with an umbrella after Federline denied her access to her children — all while recording and promoting her raw, dancefloor-oriented Blackout album. This long public meltdown came to a head with multiple hospitalizations in January 2008, at which point her long-absent father, James “Jamie” Spears, requested and was granted conservatorship of her estate. Since then, Jamie has controlled Britney’s finances and career. Given her subsequent comeback — more chart-topping albums and singles, a profitable Vegas residency, various winsome media appearances — at times Spears’ father has been painted as the savior who stabilized her in her time of need. But in recent years, a growing number of observers concluded that Britney was seeking to be liberated from her father’s rule, a conclusion later supported by court filings from the pop star herself.
Framing Britney Spears explores how we got here. Via archival footage and an array of interviews, Stark traces Britney’s career from childhood to the present, almost completely ignoring her music in favor of a focus on the destructive forces that plagued her from start to finish. We see her famous 1992 Star Search appearance, in which Ed McMahon wonders whether 10-year-old Britney has a boyfriend. Soon the story is breezing through biographical touchstones including The Mickey Mouse Club, the “…Baby One More Time” video, her proclamation of virginity, and the misogynistic fallout from her romance with Justin Timberlake. Soon we’re on to her surprise marriage to Federline (her quickly annulled prior union to Jason Alexander is omitted), critiques of her parenting, and breathless coverage of her divorce and subsequent “unraveling.” One especially scathing issue of the New York Post depicts Spears between Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton under the headline “Bimbo summit.”
The hostile clamor around Spears ramped up slowly but surely over the course of a decade, like the proverbial frog in boiling water. Watching it play out over about half an hour is startling. You feel fame closing in around Britney, and you feel her helplessness to stop it. You despair at a society of jeering hyenas that could mock this person’s downfall without any apparent empathy. You try to remember (or forget) how you personally might have contributed to this climate. You wonder whether we might be putting anyone else through a similar wringer right now, and who those people might be. (One particular rapper/producer/fashion designer comes to mind.) By dredging up a sordid collection of archival media, Framing works wonders as a condemnation of American society’s tendency to chew celebrities up and spit them out.
The gaping hole in the movie, though, is a lack of participation from Britney or her immediate family: not Jamie, not her mother Lynne, not her little sister Jamie Lynn nor her big brother Bryan. (Footage of Bryan attempting to tell an interviewer as little as possible does appear near the end.) The closest we get is Felicia Culotta, a family friend who traveled as Britney’s chaperone and personal assistant while her parents raised Jamie Lynn back in Kentwood, Louisiana — and who was later relegated to leading backstage tours when Jamie took over the Britney business. Because we don’t hear from the people at the center of her conservatorship case, we’re left with more questions than answers about her current ordeal and the real inner workings of her family life. Framing is mostly left with hearsay about the necessity of the conservatorship and Britney’s feelings about it then and now. It strongly implies certain conclusions nonetheless, painting Jamie as an absentee father who hoped his daughter would help him get rich someday and swooped in to capitalize when the opportunity presented itself.
In the absence of the Spears family, we’re treated to commentary from NYT journalists (senior editor Liz Day, critic Wesley Morris, music reporter Joe Coscarelli), figures who crossed paths with Britney over the years such as former talent scouts and MTV VJs, and lawyers who at one point were involved with her case, who suggest that (1) Britney’s conservatorship is extremely uncommon and (2) no conservatorship is likely to end. A former Us Weekly photo editor and the photographer whose car Britney attacked with an umbrella each show up to sheepishly defend their own behavior. And then there are Babs Gray and Tess Barker, hosts of the Britney’s Gram podcast, whose close examination of Spears’ Instagram account helped give rise to the #FreeBritney movement.
In the film, social media is presented as Britney’s chance to finally control her own presentation, not filtered through the media, her father, or anyone else. We see her playing with her kids, doing a Woody Woodpecker impression, and generally being a loopy and fun thirtysomething mom. Instagram seems like a great outlet for a side of her that was never really out there before. But if we are to believe Gray and Barker, along with a swarm of likeminded conspiracy theorists, the account also became the source of coded messages about Britney’s desire to break free from her father’s control. This fueled an online movement that eventually spilled over into real life, with fans demanding an end to the conservatorship — a fervor that only increased when Andrew Wallet, one of the lawyers in her father’s employ, asked for a raise on the grounds that Britney was in good mental shape and the future was looking profitable.
Still, this enthusiasm was all extremely speculative until last August, when Spears herself expressed her support for the #FreeBritney movement in a court filing. “Britney’s conservatorship has attracted an unprecedented level of scrutiny from mainstream media and social media alike,” the filing read. “Far from being a conspiracy theory or a ‘joke’ as James reportedly told the media, in large part this scrutiny is a reasonable and even predictable result of James’ aggressive use of the sealing procedure over the years to minimize the amount of meaningful information made available to the public.” The filing later called for her father to be replaced and a new head of her conservatorship appointed, but as of now, he is merely sharing control with Britney’s chosen conservators, a bank known as the Bessemer Trust. At the film’s conclusion, Britney’s fans are euphoric about being acknowledged, but frustrated about the failure to remove her dad from the picture, and we’re left with little insight as to Britney’s headspace or where things might go from here. It’s a complicated, elliptical ending to a sobering story.
Morgan Wallen’s Dangerous: The Double Album tops the Billboard 200 for a third straight week. Per Billboard, the album posted 130,000 equivalent album units, 115,000 via streaming (which equates to 154.13 million on-demand track streams). The album sold 12,000 copies, with the other 3,000 units derived from individual track sales. Dangerous is only the second album in the past 12 months to post three straight weeks of 125,000 or more units, following Taylor Swift’s folklore. It’s the first country album to spend three straight weeks at #1 since Swift’s Red in 2012. The last male artist to do it was Alan Jackson with Drive way back in 2002 (though an Elvis Presley hits compilation technically pulled off the feat later that same year).
With Pop Smoke at #2, Swift’s evermore at #3, and the Weeknd at #4, each of the top four albums is distributed by Republic Records. As Billboard points out, it’s the first time one label has monopolized the top four spots since Interscope did it in 1996. The titles that week: “Bush’s Razorblade Suitcase (Trauma/Interscope), Snoop Dogg’s Tha Doggfather (Death Row/Interscope), No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom (Trauma/Interscope) and 2Pac’s first posthumous album The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory (Death Row/Interscope), released under the pseudonym Makaveli.” The rest of this week’s top 10: Lil Durk, Juice WRLD, Ariana Grande, Luke Combs, Lil Baby, and — debuting at #10 with 29,000 units — Anuel AA and Ozuna’s collaborative album Los Dioses.
Also for a third straight week, Olivia Rodrigo’s “Drivers License” remains at #1 on the Hot 100 singles chart. At #2 is 24kGoldn and Ian Dior’s “Mood.” The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” is back up to #3, continuing its crazy run. Per Billboard, the song extends its records for most weeks in the top 5 (38) and top 10 (47); it becomes only the 16th song to spend 60 weeks on the chart, and the first to still be in the top 10 in its 60th week. And after the Weeknd plays the Super Bowl halftime show next weekend, don’t be surprised if it even climbs back to #1. (Post-Super Bowl gains won’t be reflected on the charts until two weeks from now.) Ariana Grande’s “34+35” is down to #4, followed by Dua Lipa and DaBaby’s “Levitating” at a new #5 peak. It’s Lipa’s second hit to crack the top 5 and DaBaby’s third. The rest of the top 10: Chris Brown and Young Thug’s “Go Crazy,” Grande’s “Positions,” Justin Bieber and Chance The Rapper’s “Holy,” SZA’s “Good Days” (at a new #9 peak), and AJR’s “Bang!”
Clean Bandit – “Higher” (feat. iann dior)
These “Mood” guys don’t sound so revolutionary when you put them on a standard issue lite-EDM track.
Sam Feldt – “Stronger” (Feat. Kesha)
Could Kesha have chosen a more generic pop track to jump on?
Selena Gomez & Rauw Alejandro – “Baila Conmigo”
Doesn’t exactly jump out at you, does it? So far the Spanish-language Selena Gomez tracks have not been on the same level as the best of Rare.
Victoria Monét – “F.U.C.K.”
Now this? This is smooth. The song is so good that it transcends the low-key hilarity of F.U.C.K. as an acronym for “friend u can keep.”
PRETTYMUCH – “Parking Spot”
And this?! This is exemplary boy band trap music.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Halsey is pregnant. [Instagram]
- The Weeknd announced a new greatest hits CD, The Highlights, out this Friday ahead of his Super Bowl halftime show. [The Weeknd]
- “I don’t know what things cost because I’ve never been an adult before,” Billie Eilish told Vanity Fair. “I tried to order one box of Froot Loops and I was like, Oh yeah, sure. It’s $35.” (She’d accidentally bought 70 mini boxes.) [Vanity Fair]
- Shawn Mendes has narrated a new “audio walking experience” on Apple Watch for Fitness+ subscribers. [Apple]
- Selena Gomez announced a Spanish-language EP Revelación out 3/12. [Just Jared]
- Blackpink did “Pretty Savage” on Corden. [YouTube]
- Frances Forever released an updated version of their TikTok hit “Space Girl” with singer-songwriter chloe moriondo. [YouTube]
- Justin Timberlake’s trainer shared some video of how the pop star put on 15 pounds of muscle of his role in Palmer. [Instagram]
- Also, Timberlake turned 40 years old yesterday, and death is coming for us all. [Instagram]