Sundance 2020: Insightful Portrait Of A Music Icon In “Taylor Swift: Miss Americana”

A still from “Taylor Swift: Miss Americana” by Lana Wilson, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

There’s a moment in the documentary “Taylor Swift: Miss Americana” where you see the pop music star sitting on her couch, draped in comfy, baggy clothes. She’s on the phone with her publicist, hearing for the first time that her well-received album “Reputation” has not been nominated for a Grammy.

Swift pauses momentarily to ponder the news. Then, she states that it’s ok. She’ll just go ahead and make a better record.

The moment reflects two central themes in the film: self-criticality and self-worth, qualities closely linked in this artist’s life and career. For example, the film depicts Swift as an artist who needs to continually re-evaluate her process in order to create new and, more importantly, meaningful work. It’s how she believes she can become a true artist of worth.

Directed by Lana Wilson, “Taylor Swift: Miss Americana” begins as a quasi-retrospective, covering Swift’s stratospheric career trajectory as an American singer-songwriter princess, a girl that became a national sensation at 14 and as the youngest artist ever signed by the Sony/ATV Music publishing house. With the voice of a siren and a verse to match, the film shows how Swift went on to push the boundaries of artistic expression.

Yet Swift is also seen as being wary of her fame. For instance, she knows it’s abnormal to have thousands of adoring fans around every corner and is fully aware of the machinations that have made her a poster-sized star. In one revealing scene, Swift is seen walking past fans and into her limo, where she candidly admits to past struggles with an eating disorder, an illness brought on by the constant scrutiny of her image in the media.

The film also depicts some of the trying moments of Swift’s career: The infamous Kanye debacle at the Grammy Awards and the social media #TaylorSwiftIsOverParty pushback are covered, which are events that forced Swift into hiding for a year.

However, during this period of self-imposed exile, the film reveals how she began to shape—or reshape—her work with even more power and meaning. For instance, there are glimpses of her collaborative process with producers including Louis Bell and Jack Antonoff, which are some of the best scenes in the film.

What makes this part so intriguing is how it connects both the personal and the professional sides of the artist: It shows Swift wrestling with the verse and mood of a song…and then, in the process, you see her successfully deconstructing an entire belief system from her past—one in which worthiness was based on applause and adulation. Instead, we see Swift reset her stance and find power in herself as an artist, writing enigmatic lyrics that still spark numerous theories with fans seeking to decipher her prose–a veritable Da Vinci code sewn deep within each verse.

There are also scenes of political worth that help advance Swift’s image as a force for good, looking to influence voters during the 2018 Democratic midterms and keep legislation protecting women from domestic violence and stalking. The latter is an understandable stance, especially when we hear that a stalker recently broke into her house and was found sleeping in her bed.

Overall, “Miss Americana” plays as a formative experience, a revealing portrait of a musical megastar who finally finds her inner voice, no longer fulfilled by simply achieving widespread approval (which is neither simple nor easy to achieve). In the end, the film reveals an artist, now approaching 30, who’s not as interested in giving in to the pressure to become the person that everybody else wants her to be.