Courtesy of HBO

Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero Is an Ode to Queer Joy

Directors Carlos López Estrada and Zac Manuel on a new era of concert doc

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12 mins read

“From the very beginning, everyone—Nas included—was vocal about this not feeling like a concert film,” says Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero director Carlos López Estrada. “Nas was like, ‘Look, we are going to film live performances. There’s going to be concert footage, but I don’t want this to just be a bunch of cameras filming one of these shows because we’ve seen that a lot.”

The film directed by López Estrada and Zac Manuel follows 24-year-old mega-star Lil Nas X, aka Montero Lamar Hill, as he mounts his first tour. The Long Live Montero tour, which ran 34 shows across four continents in 2022-2023, appears in some exhilarating footage in the film. The doc, debuting on HBO and Crave on January 28 after premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall, is not your typical concert documentary.

Yes, Lil Nas’s energetic performances and signature glammed-up country-rap should have the speakers pounding. But in between the numbers is a portrait of a young star in the making. Like Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour and Beyoncé’s Renaissance, Long Live Montero signals a new era of concert films. The doc charts the meteoric rise of Lil Nas through song and uses the concert as vehicle to explore his ability to bridge genres and unite generations as gay Black artist fusing rap and country. The film features his anthemic songs buttressed by testimonials from the star and his fans, along with dazzling a/v numbers and performances by a thirst trap of shirtless dancers. Long Live Montero is an ode to queer joy in concert form.

Carlos López Estrada, Lil NAs X, and Zac Manuel at the premiere of Long Live Montero | Getty Images for HBO

“Nas was evolving as an artist through the process of putting on the tour,” says López Estrada, speaking via Zoom from the Sundance Film Festival. The director says he observed the singer’s transformation before he was even making the film. The Summertime and Blindspotting director says he came aboard the concert production to help conceptualize the tour. “Nas wanted it to be theatrical,” says López Estrada. “He wanted it to have story and some narrative interwoven, so we worked together for a couple of weeks just reading through all the lyrics. We were trying to find some commonality in the themes, trying to build a structure, writing some introductory parts to each of the acts.”

The film charts Lil Nas’s metamorphosis across five acts. Interviews, archival clips, and vérité-style footage with the star at home and on the road contextualize his breakthrough hits like “Old Town Road,” which broke a billion streams on YouTube, to later viral sensations like “Industry Baby” and “Call My By Your Name.” The film’s co-director Zac Manuel, in his feature debut, says that he recognized the story beats early on while filming some backstage and behind the scenes footage.

“On the second day of shooting, I was in the car with Montero and he was talking about when his grandmother passed away and these encompassing feelings of anxiety that he had. He was losing sleep,” says Manuel. “Then he transitioned to the tour and he was like, ‘I haven’t felt that way until now. I’m feeling a lot of anxiety and a lot of tension, but I feel like the times when I’m feeling that way are right before my life changes drastically.’” Despite having a Grammy win, several chart toppers, and an army of fans, the reality of the tour doesn’t hit Lil Nas until he sees the flood of cell phone lights illuminate the concert hall during his first performance.

TIFF

Manuel says that he was struck by Lil Nas’s candour as a young star navigating these emotions while in the spotlight. “We didn’t quite know what the story was going to be when we first jumped into it, but we did have these lighthouses, so to speak, of transformation, metamorphosis, anxiety, and fear,” notes Manuel. “And then the other side of that being his courage.”

Long Live Montero steps outside the concert halls and lets Lil Nas show his vulnerability. Interviews cut throughout the film get intimate with the star as he lies in bed with plush husky Slush. He candidly laughs and reflects upon his faith and reconciling that with his sexuality, and how coming out to his family gave him clarity and coming out again to fans brought a journey of its own.

“What we did in this film was instinctually inspired by his music and his identity,” explains Manuel when asked about his muse for the confessional interviews. “It felt wrong to put him in a chair and talk to him. You know, he’s really hot, he’s really funny, he’s really personable—you wanna have pillow talk with him. The idea to put him in bed was the most natural way to do an interview with him.”

López Estrada agrees and says that Manuel’s process inspired the star to offer them access to his private life. “It really feels like Nas opening up a journal and letting you into the most profound places of his persona.”

Courtesy of HBO

The film reflects the fact that the young star only has so much story to tell at 24. However, Lil Nas’s openness captures a star making sense of his life in real time. These interviews are more therapeutic than calculated as the singer articulates his thought for the camera. “We’re not filming a seasoned artist who’s done this a million times and is phoning it in,” adds López Estrada. “You’re experiencing a coming of this very young artist, very early in his career, experiencing these larger than life things for the first time.”

Many of the stories that Lil Nas shares find echoes in the fan testimonials peppered throughout the film. Fans share coming out advice and rejoice in glam and glitter as they share how they see themselves in his story and music. “There are people who are having an experience through his music and through his art,” reflects Manuel. “Something clicked for everyone where we saw that what’s profound about this story is how his process of coming out and finding comfort in himself is reflective of other people’s processes who are at his shows. It’s not so much like he is an idol who’s got it all figured out. Actually, he’s in process with them. He just happens to be more public about it and on stage.”

Lil Nas’s unabashed celebration of queerness inevitably brings the haters to his show. But while the film depicts pockets of protesters outside his concerts, the urgency of his message hit home last September when a bomb threat delayed Long Live Montero’s TIFF premiere. “The horror of the fact that someone’s nature creates so much discomfort in someone else’s life that they feel like they have to physically threaten them is awful,” says López Estrada. The director adds that he and Manuel weren’t aware of the threat as it unfolded, although Lil Nas took it in stride.

“It wasn’t this huge event for him,” says López Estrada. “He was able to play it off with humour and with grace. He took the power away from that instance and just said, ‘I’m here and I’m looking amazing, and I am gonna own the red carpet.’”

The story reflects images in the film in which Lil Nas brushes the hate off his shoulders and sends the protesters some pizza. “I think it speaks to his ability as a person to transcend the haters and the hatred,” adds Manuel.

For audiences looking to harness the good karma that Lil Nas exudes, the film’s an opportunity to kick back, rock out, and feel have fun in a safe space. “I want people to feel the solidarity that you feel that it shows. I also want people to watch it with people that they trust who feel like family, who can identify with his experience or his experiences,” says Manuel when asked if fans should take a cue from Swifties and let loose while rocking out to the movie, just like Taylor Swift encouraged them to do with The Eras Tour. “I hope it cultivates a greater sense of solidarity, but also a greater sense of power and of owning our specific powers and our specific identities and being unapologetic about that. I don’t want to create a situation where people are going crazy in a theater, but go crazy in your own house. Put on a really amazing outfit, throw some glitter around, and have fun.”

That’s all we really want, isn’t it?

Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero premieres Saturday, January 27 at 8:00pm ET on HBO, Max, and Crave.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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