Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry
(USA, 140 min.)
Dir. R.J. Cutler
How many Grammy Awards and million dollar paydays did you have by your eighteenth birthday? Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry chronicles the massive, chart-topping rise of teen sensation Billie Eilish. The doc looks at her ascension to pop stardom with a humble origin story à la Justin Bieber. Like the Biebs or Shawn Mendes, Eilish first honed her chops on social media. Recording her first songs with her brother, Finneas, when she was just thirteen-years-old, Eilish became an instant star. The World’s a Little Blurry offers an intimate portrait of the teen singer honing her craft and recording her 2019 album When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We All Go?. As Eilish develops her voice and navigates the vicissitudes of fame during her teen years, this fly-on-the-wall glimpse ultimately offers a unique coming of age tale and portrait of growing pains.
What proves instantly striking about the doc is how little Eilish seems corrupted by fame. The World’s a Little Blurry observes as Eilish records her album in the humblest of surroundings. She and Finneas record via jam sessions in Billie’s bedroom. They riff on lyrics and sample beats, tasting the notes and finding the right groove and mood for each song. Using only a handled microphone and sturdy laptop, their DIY music studio looks much different from the soundproofed and overstuffed booths one sees in other docs. Friends and family sit around the room as they record, offering feedback and holding their applause between the tracks, much to Finneas’s chagrin.
The scenes of Eilish and her brother recording the album prove the finer moments of The World’s a Little Blurry. It’s clear that Billie Eilish just had no idea how massive her success would be. Finneas nags her that they need to deliver the best single they can, and she responds by working out some lyrics to the song “Bad Guy.” That track went on to win Grammys for Record of the Year and Song of the Year, and was the best-performing global single of 2019. Similarly, the final act sees Eilish and her brother conceive and record the new James Bond theme “No Time to Time” on the same evening that she performs a full concert. Their working relationship is envious and the creative sparks are a testament to the good parenting one witnesses between the scenes.
Director R.J. Cutler (The September Issue) weaves three narrative threads in The World’s a Little Blurry. One follows the recording process and artistic method of Eilish as she hones her craft. The second captures her on a whirlwind world tour, witnessing her success in action as she performs to sold-out audiences of screaming fans. The tour proves especially exhausting and Cutler observes how the fatigue aggravates Eilish’s Tourette’s syndrome as she deals with physical reactions to the stress of being on the road. The third track of the documentary examines Eilish’s private life. She’s just a girl figuring things out, after all, and living the peak of her teenage years in the spotlight.
The latter thread explores intimately how Eilish copes with fame and how her family keeps her grounded. The star’s mom, Maggie, is especially crucial to keeping her feet on the floor. She encourages Eilish to stay authentic, and the glimpse inside the family’s perfectly ordinary, middle class home illustrates how Billie’s parents don’t let fame consume her. Her route towards her driver’s license parallels the release of the album, as two milestones remind audiences that the star is still a teen. When the family pops champagne bottles in the yard after Eilish receives multiple Grammy nominations, she laughs at their humble surroundings—not necessarily out of condescension, but to observe how different her life is from the one fans probably perceive. Her youth is also evident in her own acts as a squealing fan. She meets Katy Perry and Orlando Bloom at Coachella—wowed by the former’s words of advice and momentarily blanking on the Pirates of the Caribbean star she crushed on as a tween—and being starstruck by her idol and first imaginary boyfriend, Justin Bieber. Bieber gets two of the doc’s most candid moments when he surprises Eilish at a concert and then offers a congratulatory call following her Grammy sweep, encouraging her to savour the moment.
The film also finds considerable tension in Eilish’s personal life. Her relationship with then-boyfriend Q is notably unhealthy. He never makes an effort to see her, which compounds her depression. Maggie asks probing questions about her daughter and her boyfriend—not obtrusively, but out of concern. The World’s a Little Blurry dives into the dark side of Eilish’s lyrics as her songs articulate thoughts of suicide and self-harm, and these small windows into the artist’s personal life and daily frustrations illuminate both the artistic merits of the work as well as its appeal to a generation of fans. Her songs go to dark places, yet Eilish articulates how expressing her anxieties through music helps her avoid realizing these impulses herself.
It is refreshing to see such an authentic portrait of youth and stardom. Audiences expecting a full-fledged puff piece might be surprised. While the AppleTV+ doc admittedly provides a revealing look at the star who was packaged and polished through Apple and iTunes, and When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? won the inaugural Apple Music Album of the Year award, The World’s a Little Blurry doesn’t feel like tie-in marketing collateral. It’s a worthy doc about youth and fame. Cutler creates an entertaining and thoughtful perspective of a star whose music is more authentic and nuanced than one might expect.
The doc delivers some footage that hardly shows Eilish at her best, but these moments keep her real. For example, a fatigued Eilish is fed up with backstage meet and greets after concerts. She storms way to her dressing room as Maggie scurries after her and reminds her that these are fans and stakeholders in her career. Eilish doesn’t attempt to hide her annoyance as she poses for selfies, and then she throws a mild temper tantrum on the tour bus when someone on Instagram alludes to her chilly behaviour. Having a bad moment is a privilege one takes for granted, especially during the moody years of adolescence.
The only whiff of a vanity project, really, comes in the film’s needlessly bloated two-hour-and-twenty-minute running time. Complete with an intermission—redundant for a home video release—the doc is exhausting, overlong, and repetitive. But perhaps that’s the point. The rise to fame is quick and sweet, yet Eilish feels the strain in the film’s second half. Most people barely begin their lives at 17. Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry leaves one wondering how one imagines the life ahead after peaking at the cusp adulthood.
Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry is now playing on AppleTV+.