Not Just a Girl: Shania Twain
(USA, 88 min.)
Dir. Joss Crowley
Okay, rock stars, let’s clear something up: you are not obligated to make a documentary to mark a new album’s release. Canadian county-pop superstar Shania Twain is the latest musician to get the commercial (I use that word consciously) documentary treatment. Not Just a Girl, which shares the same name as Twain’s greatest hits album released day-and-date with the doc, is basically 88 minutes of marketing collateral.
The flat Netflix doc is produced by Mercury Studios, an offshoot of Twain’s label Mercury Records. It offers a serviceable vehicle to promote the singer’s story and reignite interest for fans of artists she inspired, like Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood. However, Twain deserves better. Not Just a Girl is, unfortunately, one of the crasser music docs to mark an album’s release. Even Bruce Springsteen’s concert docs and behind-the-scenes feature-length add-ons offer something cinematic. Even Netflix’s own Shawn Mendes doc In Wonder, while unabashedly promotional, had some style and substance. Girl, however, is a greatest hits doc to mark a greatest hits release and nothing more. A video of Twain reading her Wikipedia page, and flipping to music videos when relevant, wouldn’t be much different.
Still the One
Not Just a Girl hits all the predictable beats in telling Twain’s story. Twain, born Eileen Edwards, sits cross-legged on a big comfy couch and tells the camera about growing up in Timmins, Ontario. Twain is a very pleasing onscreen personality. She shares her story with the humility, modesty, and a touch of dramatic flair. Moreover, as she reflects upon her mother’s effort to nurture her interest in music by bringing her to bars at last call so that she could sing at the age of eight, there are novel nuggets about an unconventional upbringing. There are also stories of formative hurt and heartache. Twain offers accounts of domestic violence and credits music as her salvation.
Her professional and eventually personal relationship with producer Mutt Lange, moreover, offers a narrative turn about a girl from nowhere becoming a national icon. The doc explores the genesis of her second album The Woman in Me, followed by the record-breaking hit-after-hit phenomenon Come on Over—the best-selling album by any female act ever.
“Let’s Go Girls”
These are elements of a respectable cradle-to-present narrative, but director Joss Crowley doesn’t offer a single surprise in the delivery. Twain’s musical trajectory and success, alternatively, are a story of defying convention. The film finds some enlightening moments as Twain recalls bending the boundaries of country music and pop, but it might have taken a cue from her ability to enliven material by mixing things up. The only real revelation is that Twain edited her own music videos–and with a much better tempo than this feature doc.
Not Just a Girl features young musicians like Avril Lavigne and Kelsea Ballerini who credit Twain’s upbeat image of female empowerment. Twain also observes how her indefatigable work ethic was a product of sexism and double standards. Old clips with interviewers, meanwhile, are stunningly sexist.
The film breezes through her hits, exploring her great fashion sense and creative vision in music videos. These looks back remind viewers that she could strut her stuff in crop tops and platform shoes just as well as the Spice Girls could (not that it mentions them), and unabashedly celebrate what it meant to be a woman at the turn of the millennium. These arguments are all worthy, but the doc breezes through everything while tapping necessary signposts en route to the finish line. It presents Twain’s career in a vacuum and offers no context about what else was happening in the moment that made her music resonate so strongly.
Lyme Disease and Comeback
Inevitably, Girl reflects on the cruel fate Twain encountered when a tick bit her at the height of stardom. Twain tells how Lyme disease deflated her, causing temporary blackouts and, most seriously, robbing her of her voice. Like many other parts of the documentary, though, there isn’t much footage or visual material to complement Twain’s interview. (The film relies a bit too much on filler b-roll.) It therefore stages her return rather quickly, as Lionel Richie appears, persistently requests Twain for a duet, and she finds her voice. It’s a quick comeback relatively free of the drama that makes for good cinema.
There are avenues for inquiry here, though, and Crowley doesn’t explore any of them. Blending genres, for one, isn’t always popular and inspired some critics to suggest the commercial aspirations of her music cheapened its artistic integrity. However, the film doesn’t little more than acknowledge said criticisms with a Taylor Swift TikTok or positive retort from the Twain camp.
There’s not even much by way of musical analysis here, but rather successive soundbites from producers and record label bigwigs offering figures of record releases, sales, and hits. The congratulatory packaging betrays Twain’s down-to-earth personality. Unfortunately, Not Just a Girl illustrates how great music, and a great personality, don’t necessarily inspire a great film.
Not Just a Girl: Shania Twain is now streaming on Netflix.