Stage-Managed: The Curated Authenticity of the Musician Documentary
Shawn Mendes fascinates me. Like, really fascinates me. I am completely bemused by his existence. So when Shawn Mendes: In Wonder (2020) dropped on Netflix in November last year, I jumped at the chance to find out more about the man behind the (impressively mediocre) music.
In Wonder is the latest addition to Netflix’s line up of musician documentaries, joining titles including Gaga: Five Foot Two (Lady Gaga, 2017), Homecoming (Beyoncé, 2019) and Miss Americana (Taylor Swift, 2020). Hop over to Amazon Prime for not only the Jonas Brothers’ Chasing Happiness (2019) but also the accompanying – and appallingly titled – concert film, Happiness Continues (2019).
Invariably executive-produced by their all-star subjects, these documentaries offer an intimate insight into the lives of the rich and famous – an insight curated with surgical precision.
Of course, no documentary is as objective as it claims to be. If they were, they wouldn’t need a director, right? Someone to shape their story, work an angle. I’m not suggesting that a film like Asif Kapardia’s Amy (2015) is the authoritative account of Amy Winehouse’s life – it’s an account, an interpretation. But as social media gives those in the public eye ever more control over their image, it seems like this kind of documentary is playing an increasingly important role in constructing each celebrity’s personal mythology.
Sometimes, timing makes it clear that these documentaries are essentially ninety-minute adverts. In Wonder, for example, was released ten days before Mendes’ fourth studio album, Wonder, while Chasing Happiness hit screens five days before the Jonas Brothers’ comeback album, Happiness Begins (see what they did there?). But even if not accompanying an album release, they exist to promote a brand. While Miss Americana premiered a good few months after Lover, it’s predominantly a recapitulation of the narrative Swift has been building since reputation: good-girl-turned-superstar who only ever wanted to do the right thing. Five Foot Two is more of a stepping-stone for Gaga; released halfway between Joanne and A Star is Born, it encourages us to forget Gaga as she first appeared in the early 2010s in order to prime us for her reinvention as a hard-working ingénue during awards season 2019. Chasing Happiness, meanwhile, cements the Jonas Brothers as the wholesome, family-oriented boyband of Disney’s dreams, swapping purity rings for perfect marriages. (Sadly, it also cements Kevin as superfluous to requirements. You can use the concert film as a drinking game: every time Kevin could be having a better time at home with his kids, take a shot.)
This isn’t to say that they don’t attempt to fashion a narrative from their footage. Five Foot Two and Miss Americana position themselves as coming-of-age dramas, documenting the reinventions of Gaga and Swift respectively as they navigate fame. It goes something like this: Gaga and Swift lose themselves trying to fit in with the popular kids, but then something prompts them to realise they were enough as they were all along. We follow Gaga from just after the failure that was Artpop through the recording and release of the (largely forgettable) Joanne, up until her 2017 Super Bowl performance. After Artpop, the documentary claims, Gaga realised she needed to be true to herself – resulting in the stripped-back aesthetic (read: pink fedora) that supposedly suffuses Joanne. It’s strange how almost universally negative reviews prompt self-revelation. The same is true of Miss Americana: the pivotal moment of Swift’s career hinges on Kim, Kanye and that phone call, prompting her to overhaul her lifestyle, abandon the #Squad and step back from the public eye. Chasing Happiness, on the other hand, takes its cues from the road movie more than the Bildungsroman, an American odyssey that leads us through the places and periods that made Nick, Joe and Kevin who they are today – all while reminding us that the brothers still have some serious making up to do following their (actually rather dramatic) 2013 breakup.
And In Wonder? Well, In Wonder begins with Mendes typing his thoughts into his phone. An automated voice reads them aloud: ‘Ever since I was about ten years old, I was obsessed with being really good at things.’ It isn’t immediately clear why Mendes isn’t speaking – then, bombshell. Mendes is on vocal rest. He’s lost his voice. ‘Last night reminded me I’m not invincible.’ Fade to black.
This is the governing paradigm of In Wonder: that Mendes is only human. This, of course, relies on you thinking that Mendes isn’t only human. At best, I thought the former Vine sensation was blessed with the superhuman ability of pulling off a vest. Mendes, on the other hand, seems to have drunk his own Kool-Aid and reiterates, with increasingly grating frequency, that people believe him to be godlike – the patron saint, perhaps, of catchy guitar riffs, PG-13 sexual frustration, and teenage boys who feel things.
The other problem is that while Mendes should be a documentarian’s dream – on camera since the age of fourteen – his level of online exposure means there are few gaps for In Wonder to fill. Mendes isn’t an enigma; there’s no mystery to solve. The same is true of Chasing Happiness: I learnt a lot about the Jonas Brothers only because I knew next-to-nothing about them to begin with. Miss Americana only works because it covers a period during which Swift rejected social media – it genuinely can offer the never-before-seen moments that each of these documentaries promises. There’s no way it would have landed, for example, during Swift’s 1989 era. Social media has given celebrities ultimate control over their brand – they decide what to show and what to hide. So these documentaries can only show us more of the same; the boundaries of what their subjects are willing to give have already been delineated by Instagram. When they profess to show us the person behind the image, it’s really like taking apart a Russian doll – claiming to crack open the artifice of Instagram, but actually only showing us a version of reality acted purely for camera.
Even in Swift’s case, Miss Americana doesn’t quite work. It undermines itself, its very existence not quite matching up to its message. Didn’t we not see these moments for a reason? Swift claims to have believed her career was over following the Kimye drama – so why commission Lana Wilson to make this documentary? If this is about authenticity, leaving behind that oh-so-constructed image to show us her ‘real life,’ why are certain moments filmed at all? Equally, what are the stakes in Chasing Happiness, really? There’s no doubt the brothers fell out. But surely their relationship had to have healed enough to agree to participate in the documentary. So what actually is the risk when they play the bizarre therapy-exercise-slash-drinking game? It’s not going to go to shit – they have a record to release, after all. Remember – these aren’t exposés. They’re adverts.
Knowing that these documentaries will never come close to anything resembling authenticity – destined to only ever peel off one layer of artifice to reveal another below – why do I keep watching? Because, as curated as these documentaries are, their blindspots are inevitable. This isn’t an outsider’s perspective, but the most inside insider’s – and so the documentaries become interesting for all the wrong reasons. A particularly bizarre sequence of Five Foot Two, for example, sees Gaga visit her grandmother, Angelina, to play her the title track of Joanne. The album is a tribute to Gaga’s aunt, who died of lupus aged nineteen. In 1974. More than twelve years before Stefani Germanotta would be born. ‘Don’t become maudlin over this,’ says Angelina, more than a little confused by Gaga’s fixation on an aunt she never knew. ‘I am Joanne,’ claims Gaga at one point. She simply isn’t. It’s just uncomfortable, as is the presence of the cameras at her goddaughter’s baptism, the Lady Gaga machine overshadowing what should be an intimate event. But isn’t it just fascinating to think about the way that Gaga must interact at everyday events? Devastating to realise that she is, ultimately, surrounded by employees – both family and friends on her payroll? Similarly, Chasing Happiness might not show us anything new, but it makes you realise how insane it was for Columbia Records to invest in a ten-year-old Nick Jonas. I’m still thinking about whether Swift sets up the camera before any pivotal event or important call, just in case, and whether she redoes her reactions to them if she forgets.
But there’s none of that during In Wonder. It’s one big anti-climax. Mendes cements his nice-kid-from-Canada schtick at the expense of anything resembling a storyline. Grant Singer tries, he really does, to convince us that the stakes are high – all thumping heartbeats, handheld shots, choppy editing – but when the most Mendes can do is scroll through his phone with a vague sense of angst, you really can’t blame the director. ‘This isn’t a story about a famous musician,’ Mendes insists, ‘this is a story about a guy growing up.’ Turns out, if you’re ‘just a normal guy,’ the story of you growing up just ain’t that interesting. So Mendes loves Camilla Cabello to the point of obsession and smokes weed. Cool. Might have made him interesting six years ago, when One Direction were squirming at the suggestion they could have been near a spliff. When Miss Americana shows Swift in a fight with her father and management over politics, on the other hand, there’s a genuine feeling that Swift isn’t entirely in control. Similarly, there’s a real sense of the game Gaga is playing in Five Foot Two. Towards the end, as she prepares for her Super Bowl performance, Gaga loses it with a member of her team over a fault in her jacket: ‘If I pick up the keytar and play the wrong note in front of one hundred million people, that’s my fault. It doesn’t matter that someone else screwed up. It’s my name.’
But when Mendes loses his voice, it turns out his Brazilian fans just hope he gets well soon. ‘Maybe I should pretend I’m Superman for a little bit longer,’ Mendes muses at one point. It might have been better for Singer if he had. Fundamentally, these documentaries can never overcome the fact that their existence is paradoxical. They desperately want to convince us that their subjects are just like us – normal people, normal problems. But their existence is predicated on the fact that they’re not. And, let’s face it, we wouldn’t watch if they were.
Francesca is allegedly studying for an MPhil in English at the University of Cambridge, but spends most of her time trying to make the perfect tahini cookie. She considers this article proof that she really does only read the Daily Mail’s Showbiz section as ‘research’.