It looked for a moment at the beginning of Britney: For the Record that she might be making the full transition into this decade’s Courtney Love—that she might show us how the sausage was made, as it were, with a behind-the-scenes look not so much at her life but at the business of putting together a major-label pop release, with all the players present by name and all the machinations revealed. We didn’t get that, of course, but what we got was pretty good anyway. It wasn’t a puff piece or an installment of the E! True Hollywood Story, and if it wasn’t Truth or Dare either, that wouldn’t really fit with Britney’s character. What we got was a very well-made and mildly artistic documentary that was also an expertly crafted bit of rhetoric, taking Britney’s side but also making a surprisingly convincing case for it. How did For The Record pull off that trick?
To be fair, Britney does get in a few regrettable lines about “wanting to feel like you’re part of the people” and being trapped and whatnot. But she does what she needs to do: She admits she made mistakes; she gives a reasonably convincing explanation for what went on (and there’s a fairly strong intimation that postpartum depression played a role); and she explicitly rejects the idea that she’s a victim. We’re used to scoffing at celebrities’ complaints about photographers, and Britney’s comments do come off as self-serving at first. But the film builds its case deliberately, without narration, letting the images speak for themselves.
First we see Britney’s car surrounded by what can only be called a swarm of paparazzi, in sedans and trucks but mostly on bikes (!), swerving in and out of traffic; Britney’s car stops, they run out and pile back in, a photographer loudly curses someone out, and after an awkward moment, they move on. Then we see Britney shopping, and it’s a very charming scene: she tries on clothes, dismisses a shirt as “very Katie Holmes,” goofs around with her assistant, whispers to the camera, and says “I don’t know why I’m whispering!” She seems to be genuinely having fun. And then her bodyguards hold up a blanket and she walks out behind it. It’s temporarily heartbreaking, and temporarily convincing. Britney doesn’t seem to want this; she seems to want to live her life, and she can’t. Of course, if she really just wanted to live her life, she could’ve moved back to Louisiana, which she admits. But now she’s stuck. To Americans, for whom the idea of being prevented from doing anything you want at any time—especially shopping!—is appalling, this is horrifying.
Later, Madonna shows up for some reason. Ostensibly, she and Britney are going to duet on “Human Nature,” but the performance is awful (as is anything involving Madonna wearing a feathered hat and playing acoustic guitar) and the actual encounter between the two blonde ambitioneers is awkward and forced. The real reason for this interaction seems to be for Madonna to sit like a high-gloss guru and tell the documentary crew how alike she and Britney are, and how Britney just needs to reflect on her life and realize that she does have control over her life and there is an order to things.
All of this is entirely wrong, of course. Britney isn’t like Madonna, ruthless and controlling and deliberate and focused. Britney works really hard, yes—she stresses this, and it seems to be true—but she does so as a way of dealing with her life, not to be successful necessarily, and definitely not to get a particular message out. Britney is, ultimately, playful. She’s easily bored; at a video shoot, an effect doesn’t work and the choreographer has to distract her with a handheld video game, but this works, and she’s happy. The whole point of the documentary is that there’s too much control in her life, that nothing is exciting anymore. She speaks wistfully of her childhood, when her family could go off to Biloxi on a whim.
After a series of weird moments—her dad sadly popping bubble wrap, her dad showing up at the house in, no joke, a scary clown outfit and terrifying the fuck out of Britney’s children, Britney being roused from a nap and casting a baleful eye toward the cameras when she realizes she’s still being filmed—there’s a lovely little sequence at the end, on the shoot of the “Circus” video. Britney’s all made up and ready to go, but they’re not ready yet. So she starts doing everybody else’s makeup, doing silly voices, goofing around. And something about all this (coupled with, maybe, the image at the beginning of her dad making her cheese grits with American cheese) makes me think that Britney’s best analogue is actually Dolly Parton.
This is unfair to Britney, of course; Dolly is kind of a genius. But the inflection is the same, much more so than Courtney or Madonna. Where Courtney is all snottiness and Madonna is all laser-focused drive, Britney has that same sort of relaxed, restless vibe as Dolly. Right now, it looks like she’s a failed Dolly, given you could plausibly compare her to Courtney Love. (That’s never a good sign.) But we’re coming off what was probably just a bad year for Britney, thanks to postpartum depression or whatever (“I don’t know how I dealt with it really. I just know I did not want to be at home. Because my babies represented home. And every time I went home, it was just like, oh God, I do not want to be here. So when I was in my car, and when I was driving, I was just…gone somewhere.”). Her normal personality isn’t really like that, and she seems to be making a concerted effort to back away from it. She is a Dolly for our times, of course, not self-made so much as being used while she herself was using, and so lacking Dolly’s insane level of competence. But that in itself is kind of lovable, too. Here’s how Britney ends the documentary.
“I try to avoid situations from the past that may threaten me.”
(Q: How do you do that?)
“I go through life like a karate kid.”
Britney: For The Record [MTV]