Charli XCX: Alone Together
(USA, 67 min.)
Dir. Bradley Bell and Pablo Jones-Soler
The beat goes on and on, even during lockdown. As the COVID-19 pandemic closed arenas, shuttered clubs, and prevented IRL meet-ups, musicians struggled to express their craft. So too did music fans feel the strain. Health precautions meant they couldn’t gather in crowds, dance, and sing their hearts out. For many fans, moreover, these venues weren’t simply an escape. They’re a lifeline, especially for marginalized groups.
Here’s where Charli XCX enters the chat. The young British musician, née Charlotte Emma Aitchison, engaged with her fans via Zoom early in the pandemic. Although Charli XCX doesn’t identity her sexuality on the rainbow, she has a strong LGBTQ fan base. Through these Zoom meet-ups, she created a virtual safe space where fans could connect not only with the star behind their favourite beats, but also like-minded individuals struggling alone in isolation. Charli XCX: Alone Together explores the power of community in the COVID age. It might be slight at 67 minutes, but fans will appreciate the exercise in being seen and heard. So too will viewers interested in a portrait of what it means to be an effective ally.
The COVID Album
Charli XCX: Alone Together quickly explains why Charlie captivates fans. From her breakthrough pop anthem “Boom Clap” in the teen flick The Fault in Our Stars, young fans discovered love through her music. As she evolves and fans mature, her upbeat songs fluidly speak to a diversity of experiences. Collaborations with a young gay icon Troye Sivan and with emerging powerhouses like Lizzo and Carly Rae Jepsen let queer audiences know they had an ally as Charli aligned herself with people who’d lived their experiences or had been proudly embraced by the community. Throughout the doc, Charli XCX genuinely seems to care about her fans. It’s obvious that they appreciate the attention, too, as directors Bradley Bell and Pablo Jones-Soler offer ample footage of fans recording themselves on Zoom with Charli.
The doc inevitably falls in line with many of the behind-the-scenes portraits as Charli XCX readies a new album. She quickly announces plans to create, produce, and release How I Am Now amid the pandemic. Announced in April 2020, Charli XCX offers the album a six-month self-imposed deadline. The Zoom meetings become an exercise in crowd-sourcing material. She engages fans in the production of her work—or, rather, their work. Bell and Jones-Soler offer footage of Charli XCX’s DIY approach to this album. She reconfigures her living room into a recording studio, and fans love the novelty without much concern for the loss in quality. The album gives people a goal they need to get through isolation.
Zoom Empowerment and Zoom Fatigue
Alone Together stiches together a wide-range of digital messages Charli XCX shared with fans. There are Zoom chats and Instagram stories. There are confessionals from her audience and shrieks of glee when they learn she’s online with them. The lo-fi Zoom aesthetic speaks to the ways in which community defined itself anew during COVID.
Drawing upon so much small-screen material, however, leaves something to be desired, especially after two-years of Zoom fatigue. One can forgive docs for using Zoom interviews nowadays, but films composed primarily through the virtual sphere can be exhausting. Their tinny audio and pixilated images overly stimulate the senses. Similarly, the doc leans heavily on the videos of Charli XCX’s Instagram Live chats and her stories. Those TikToky videos are swell on iPhones with their vertical orientation, but, again, they aren’t made for feature-length films. Charli XCX: Alone Together illustrates both the pros and cons of COVID constraints. They work in a pinch and provide relief, but they’re dated reminders of a traumatic period in which we’re still living.
At the same time, Charli XCX’s openness is admirable. Although she energizes her fans with the album, she also speaks candidly about mental health. She has low moments and lets her fans know they’re not alone while struggling to cope with COVID. The doc’s look at mental health, and at the importance of having someone to talk through one’s anxieties, should help viewers long after COVID is over. It’s just a question of one’s eagerness to re-enter the Zoom after being trapped in it for two years.