Australian Arts

Britney Spears

13 March 2021

9:00 AM

13 March 2021

9:00 AM

The arts world in general —and with it theatre in particular— is opening up. Not only is the Botticelli to Van Gogh: Masterpieces from the National Gallery in London on at the National Gallery in Canberra, but Bill Henson, as great a photographer as the world has known, has a show at Roslyn Oxley’s gallery in Sydney which brings to fulfilment various pictures that were first meditated and indeed ‘first’ drafted in the 1990s so that the viewer may be startled to recognise the faces of models or thematic configurations from 20 or more years ago.

Meanwhile at the Adelaide festival, Neil Armfield’s bringing us his version of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Robyn Nevin in A German Life the one-hander about Goebbels’ secretary which Maggie Smith did in London. And it’s gratifying to hear enraptured reports of Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park in Kate Mulvaney’s adaptation which apparently comes with great cinematic cycloramas in Kip Williams’ production which makes the audience think they can see the outer reach of a great harbourside city as it glides and jumps through time.

But what a journey back through time the much-touted new documentary about Britney Spears presents.

Most of us remember how she fell upon the world like a teen goddess from nowhere, how she sold millions of records and was subject to the most salacious scrutiny and then how things went wrong: the break-up with Justin Timberlake, the deadly stand-off between her and her estranged husband Kevin Federline, and the talk of harrowing and potentially dangerous post-partum depression. And in some corner of our minds reserved for celebrity enigmas there was the weird business of her father (never off his own bat a rich man or a very refined-looking one) ending up as his daughter’s conservator, which meant that he and some lawyer, latterly a bank too, controlled her financial affairs.

The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears takes us through the stardom, the captivating presence and pizzazz, as well as the squalors. A tough-looking New Yorker woman says coolly that the only thing she remembers Spears père saying was that his daughter was going to buy him a boat. Britney’s mum is a more likeable figure and so, I suppose, is the assistant who goes back to Spears’ Mississippi days though she looks like an improbable Virgil for the hell this young superstar found herself in.

And the loud, fast edit packaging of this doco, which never lapses into anything remotely resembling the analytical mode, highlights the sleazy exploitative wildfire of all the talk show questioning she got about her virginity, her breasts, her every private inch of being.

Was it the comedian Seth Rogen who said no wonder these young girls go off the rails, they’re trying to establish their identities during the horrors of adolescence while also handling the perils of a media world that treats them as big-time consumable commodities?

And so they get eaten alive, as Britney does comprehensively in this account. Much of it involves the time of Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton and you can see how the slime trial of that helped create a new idiom of prurience without doing much to chasten it.  Nor does it altogether help that the producers are so fervently on the ‘Free Britney’ bandwagon and we see her fans wielding her Instagram posts on their phones and jumping to massive self-delighting conclusions that make you despair of getting any perspective. We’re told how she would just walk through a crowd that’s gagging for her to sing in Las Vegas but not the reasons why the Californian judge will not dispense with the father’s conservatorship, much as he’s willing to modify it or have it shared with others after he’s listened to Britney’s legal representatives.

In the end it’s difficult not to think the documentary is itself in danger of being engulfed by the social media certitudes it parades with such enthusiasm. It creates the eerie feeling that everyone on earth could feed on this poor breathtaking creature, even those supposedly most critical of the very process.

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