Sunday night, the E! Network premiered I Am Britney Jean, a two-hour documentary event chronicling Britney Spears‘ life and times as she prepares for her imminent residency in Las Vegas. The last time I watched any sort of documentary-style coverage of Britney Spears, it was her reality mini-series Britney and Kevin: Chaotic, an unholy mess of disturbing and embarrassing footage that Entertainment Weekly referred to as “career suicide by videocam.”
Since then, Britney’s had two kids, one divorce and one very public meltdown, followed by the slow and deliberate rebuilding of her career – mostly helmed by her father Jamie Spears, whose Svengali-esque conservatorship of his daughter has often seemed cruel and unfortunate. I’ve said often that you don’t actually need Britney Spears to make a Britney Spears record, and it’s been proven several times over as the pop princess has churned out album after album of decent-enough, flawlessly produced pop music, while she herself appeared completely dead behind the eyes. This was especially apparent during the promo cycle for her album Femme Fatale, a soulless, auto-tuned mess that one reviewer noted “…finds unity of subject, style and sound by imagining scenarios in which vanishing into anonymity can be comfort and liberation: in the darkness of a dance floor, in the whir of a computer network, in the throes of an orgasm, and when you are Britney Spears.” No matter how catchy the single, it was hard to take joy in songs being performed by someone who seemed to want to be doing almost anything else.
With the arrival of her new album Britney Jean, it seems that Ms. Spears’ camp are particularly invested in disproving the notion that Britney might not want to be stuck in this perpetual album cycle, that she’s having the time of her life and achieving all her dreams, even without any legal control over her own career. That’s where I Am Britney Jean comes in. Whereas Chaotic was all drunken giggles, Cheetos and sexual oversharing, I Am Britney Jean is a hyper-polished look at an extremely professional pop star who’s competently in command of the creation of the greatest show of her entire career while raising two adorable sons. There are no great scandals to be uncovered, no bombshells to be dropped. The only real surprise is a rather pleasant one: Britney Spears actually seems.. kind of happy.
Let’s watch together!
We open with a gorgeous, resplendent shot of Britney against a white background, softly lit, smiling hopefully from a director’s chair as faceless minions bustle around her. They are earnestly preparing for what we are told is about to be her biggest show ever – her soon-to-be legendary residency at the Planet Hollywood Resort in Las Vegas. The captions tell us that Britney has just four months to prepare, which I personally feel is a lot of time considering the amount of involvement I assume she will have, but then they jump straight to the serious journalism by asking Britney what her favourite kind of bubblegum is – “Watermelon. Watermelon bubblegum, man.. it’s the best.”
Really, I wonder, how much time and effort does this girl really have to put into this show? She just has to learn some dances and figure out where to stand on the stage so she doesn’t get electrocuted or set on fire, right? Wrong.
Rich Juzwiak at Gawker helpfully pointed out that the interview segment of this documentary was digitally elongated to make Britney appear thinner, which is completely unnecessary (she looks great these days, you guys!). If the “Work Bitch” cover art is any indication, Britney’s team seem to think she needs a lot more retouching than she actually does. Nobody expects Britney to be perfect; we just want her to be Britney, a nice girl who’s a pretty good dancer and who has a torso like a human being would have.
Brit she tells us that she’s generally a very humble and shy person, so when she gets on stage and performs her giant flashy arena shows, it’s like becoming a different person. “Bipolar disorder, for real,” she chuckles, and I cringe.
The first thing Britney has to do is pose for some pictures for promo shots. She looks cute in all the outfits and seems to be dancing around and having fun, which is nice to see – I’ve been genuinely concerned about this person I’ve never met for a pretty long time. She explains a bit about how she’s never really known a life outside show business, so this is all she really knows how to do - that she’s learned to care less about criticism and do all of this for herself. She throws herself into helping to conceive the sets and costumes involved in her show, which I hadn’t expected. She also begins working with a new set of choreographers, who seem to really challenge her. Britney picks up all the new stuff like a pro. Britney’s body looks amazing, FYI.
Time to pick the setlist! I always imagined that faceless fat-cat record executives chose the order of her songs, but Britney appears to do it herself. She likes to mix it up, peppering her old classics like “Toxic” and “Crazy” with her stronger new material. Britney describes this show as “a combination of everything,” which could mean anything but probably means nothing. She says she really relates to her song “Piece of Me,” a song she did not write, because the paparazzi always want a piece of her.
Sometimes things are hard, like she gets a little scared when she’s landing in her private helicopter, but it turns out OK. Basically it looks like the hardest thing she has to do is look like she’s enjoying everything.
She hopes her fans feel a personal connection with her. I wonder what it’s like to be Britney Spears, who has lived her entire adult life as an incredibly famous pop star, and imagine that it is remotely possible for the common people to feel personally connected to her. I have no idea what it means to be Britney Spears, and Britney Spears has no idea what it means to be me. She’s so lucky, she’s a star, but she cries, cries, cries in her lonely heart.
OH NO NOW THERE’S ONLY THREE MONTHS.
Did it take a whole month to do all this stuff we just did?
Britney loves Vegas because it’s a celebration of family and fun. She thinks her children will really love it there. She has fond memories of being a little kid going on the rides there, and she always wanted to be a performer, and she wants to celebrate being that kid with big dreams. Time to talk about set and lighting design! Britney is going to hatch out of an egg. No mention has been made of Britney doing any sort of vocal training or exercises.
Now it’s time for the best production dudes in the business to turn this huge theatre into the thing! I’d love to see what they’re doing! I would watch an entire show about how they turned this space into the set for Britney’s show, but that is not very glamorous and it’s time to shoot a video for “Work Bitch.” Even though she almost ended up having no air conditioner, Britney holds it together and does a great job. She even asks to see playback of every shot to make sure it’s exactly what she had in mind. Britney Spears is totally in control.
With the level of fame that Britney has, it’s sweet that she still wants to connect personally with people (“Wow, Britney, “Work Bitch” really got me through the darkest times in my life!”), even though this seems pretty impossible? She has no idea what that means, or maybe even what it means to connect to someone outside of her personal fishbowl at this point. That said, she seems personable and very sweet and more bright-eyed and intelligent than I thought she’d be. She says she’s shy and that the overexposure was really difficult for her. Britney Jean says she is my friend. I would like to be Britney Jean’s friend.
WE HAVE LIKE TWO MONTHS TO GO!
Where does the time go?! What is happening with the lighting rigs and the projectors?! WHO CARES, TIME TO INTERVIEW DANCERS. All of these dancers are amazing.
Britney showed up to check out the dancers and she wants the intangibles. She is getting vibes. This is very Top Model. Now she must deliberate with the judges, and when they come back they will decide WHO is dancing for Britney and WHO is going home. Except yay it’s everybody!!!
Costumes! This guy has to make all the things! Britney wants to be respectable but also fun but also intense and also pretty! She has a lot of strong ideas about the costumes and the dude is trying to sell her on stuff she isn’t into and at the end of the day, this is her decision. Reach for the stars, kiddo.
Thirty minutes into this thing, I haven’t even seen a dress rehearsal of the show and I have opened up a new tab on my browser, in which I am pricing out tickets to see it in April. Anybody wanna come with? Wanna spring for the Meet n Greet package?
Back to business. I’m sorry, Mr. Choreographer, I cannot take you seriously in this outfit.
It’s time to see the actual thing on a soundstage! I didn’t know they built it on a soundstage instead of the venue itself first. That’s really cool! Britney arrives to see the dancers rehearsing and grins her goofy little Britney grin and compliments her choreographers’ haircuts. She loves everything! She’s wearing a Snoopy shirt! Britney describes her nerves as “jitterbugs.” Britney, that’s not a thing.
This stage has a flame trough and Britney will be bungee-ing off a huge tree. Britney’s done insane things on stage before and is fazed by nothing. Now Britney gets to learn where all the dances will happen and how she will work the stage, which is actually a fascinating process.
Britney Spears has a body double named Nikki who tries on her clothes for her. Then they take iPhone photos and send them to Britney for approval. This is actually how I want to shop all the time.
Everything I know about how shows in Las Vegas work I learned from the cinematic classic Showgirls. This man who I assume is the Kyle MacLachlan character says they are a week or two behind on construction and “wildly concerned.”
WE ONLY HAVE A MONTH AND A HALF.
Everybody is starting to freak out. They are making up Britney’s schedule, which is really intense. Britney does not want to miss any rehearsal for any reason whatsoever.
It’s time to film another video! They only have 38 days to go. Britney is on the phone with her boyfriend, chewing gum, super casual. She is still hemming and hawing over the details of the one dress she didn’t like. In the end, Britney gets exactly the dress she wanted in the first place, and later she will reject that one too. Britney’s dad is running around in the background, presumably building her another air conditioner out of duct tape somehow. Her father only exists in this documentary to innocuously mumble about duct tape from time to time, nothing to see here.
This male model has to kiss Britney. He looks uncomfortable. He is from Norway. Britney tells him she’s from Louisiana. He doesn’t seem to know what Louisiana is.
Time for Britney’s listening party for her new record. There are avocado rolls, which look delicious. Some dude whose voice makes me want to kill myself gets a slice of Britney’s birthday cake (which has a picture of her on it) and makes a gross comment about how he got a piece with a little bit of boob and a little bit of heart. Then he asks Britney if she is a shy person and she says yes and he says “WOW.” Then they play my favourite song off the new record, “Alien,” which Britney contributed “additional songwriting” to but speaks of in a very personal way. The music journalists are nodding favourably in unflattering lighting.
The dancers are starting to crack under the intense rehearsal schedule, and they are breaking down physically, puking, straining muscles, breaking bones maybe? The choreographers are laughing and grinning about this. Oh hey, they never hired understudy dancers, oops.
It’s Britney’s birthday! She wore a party hat.
FIVE WEEKS TO GO OH GOD.
Britney’s costumes look amazing. There is a terrifying doll costume and some fencing masks. The show is starting to take shape on the actual soundstage, and now that things are coming together, Britney has decided to change the setlist. She’d like to add “Alien,” which is a good idea because it’s her best new song, but also a terrible idea because it’s really late in the game to make changes. I assume that the directors of the show threw a major temper tantrum about this idea, but the scene we see shows them appearing only slightly dismayed by the possibility of having to rebuild the entire show to include a whole new song with new choreography and new production. “This could all go horribly wrong!” some guy LOLs, grinning bitterly.
Time to run through the whole show for the first time! Britney looks excited! Even in leggings and sports bras, this show looks phenomenal. If nothing else, Britney Spears is an incredible dancer, and it’s amazing to see her doing what she loves and doing it so well – with real enthusiasm.
Britney shows up for Thanksgiving with her parents and her brother and her boyfriend and her sons are wearing LION HATS. Preston is playing the piano and Britney is trying to teach him some things. They’re normal kids. Britney’s parents got back together?!?! How did I miss this?
Britney told a clean joke! Her kids didn’t laugh because it wasn’t funny. Then Britney explains that her boyfriend understands that she’s very busy, and tells us that it’s “their joke” that they never see each other. That’s two unfunny jokes in ten seconds flat. Britney Spears: good dancer, terrible comedian. The boyfriend seems nice. They are on the phone with Jamie Lynn, who couldn’t make it to Thanksgiving. Jamie Lynn has some very kind things to say about Britney, and Britney says some very nice things about Jamie Lynn. Jamie Lynn is interviewed in a recording studio and I’m not sure why.
For some reason this movie really wants us to know that sometimes Britney and Jamie Lynn have wrestling matches and Jamie Lynn always wins. Picture that for a minute. Now move on.
Britney believes love is important. That’s nice. I think it’s really weird that they filmed their Thanksgiving dinner.
Britney is at Planet Hollywood doing press and she has so! much! to do! She has to sew all the costumes and rig all the lights herself as well as providing medical attention to her dancers and folding all the t-shirts for the merch booth. JK but she does have to answer some awkward questions and then dance a whole lot. Britney wants Skittles. Mario Lopez came to bring Britney some cupcakes! All of the interview questions make me cringe. Britney is running late! She is making crazy high pitched nervous noises and those noises make me nervous too. Do you want some Skittles?
Later, Britney goes to the hospital to visit some sick kids! That’s adorable. Even though this is almost always a super-transparent PR move, Britney looks sincerely thrilled to meet the kids, and they’re all over the moon at the chance to talk to and take pictures with her. It’s very sweet.
TWENTY TWO DAYS TO GO.
They are trying to cram 16 hours of filming into 7 hours. Britney is an old pro. This is all she knows, this breakneck pace. She makes some goofy faces, but she’s got this on lock. They’re still not sure about “Alien,” and Britney has decided to maybe postpone it until it’s a single and they can be 100% sure about having it down. That was very responsible of her. Everybody likes this idea.
HEY, they hired a swing dancer somehow, and now this guy has to learn the whole show in a week. If this guy Jae Fusz (really?) can learn the whole show in this time, he deserves to be Britney’s dancer and maybe also her life partner. The dancer who injured himself and might need to be replaced is understandably depressed, but he seems very supportive of the new dude. That’s nice.
Time to load into the actual theatre! That is so much work and so many people have been there doing really intense physical labour but we don’t see any of that because it is way less glamorous. When can we get all this stuff in so we can start dancing on it?! A lot of the stage is slightly different from the way they planned it, which is a big deal for a show this precise. For example, this huge tree she’s supposed to be jumping off is a lot bigger than they thought it would be, and it’s a bit overwhelming for everyone to see all the props and stage things shooting fire and doing all the things they will do. This reminds me of all the times on Top Model when Tyra tells the models that it’s their job to be 200 ft underwater while also inside a real atomic bomb that is actually on fire and make all of it look effortless and beautiful, which is what Britney will do because Britney is a pro. We believe in you! Everybody is really excited to see the show as it will appear.
The costume guy is here! He looks really stressed out but isn’t at all unpleasant about the whole thing, which is why he is a professional. Everybody else is maybe a little bit cranky.
Britney starts to feel a little sick but it might just be the low humidity in Vegas! It’s not very good for singers. They call it Las Vegas Throat, which I would have assumed meant something entirely different, amirite?
Britney’s kids came to visit her on set! Their mommy has a really cool job. When I was Preston’s age my mom would make me dress up for “Take Our Daughters To Work Day” and it was really boring and her office didn’t even have rain that falls in geometric shapes or a fire trough or anything. Later, Britney takes her dancers out to dinner and her manager dude says she’s still a down-to-earth country girl from Kentwood, Louisiana.
Finally, we’re treated to a montage of all the work that’s gone into the show, interspersed with shots of Britney amongst Vegas scenery. It’s apparent that at this moment in her life, she does really belong in this city – it’s all about the glitz and the glamour and the lights and pyrotechnics that will make this show the spectacle Britney had in mind. Even this behind-the-scenes look at her life wasn’t particularly behind-the-scenes; it was carefully orchestrated to give us the rosiest possible view of a hard-working pop star who’s involved in almost every decision regarding her ever-expanding, constantly evolving career. Still, it was nice to see Britney with a genuine smile and some light in her eyes.
Girl, you sold me. I’ll see you in Vegas.