In May of 2007, I went to the Highline Ballroom in New York City to see an up-and-coming singer called Amy Winehouse. It was nearly summer and her breakout single “Rehab” was already everywhere; you couldn’t get away from it. Even through the blitz of her debut record’s success, the legend surrounding her drug and alcohol problem was already beginning to overshadow her talent. It was obvious she was going to be huge. My lingering memory of the show is that the songs were incredible, the Dap-Kings (her backing band, on loan from Sharon Jones) were amazing, but Amy seemed off her game. What stuck with me the most was how loud the crowd cheered — not after Amy finished a song, but whenever she took a big gulp from a tall glass of something brown on stage. Everyone in that room (including myself) was complicit. We were already creating the monster that would eventually kill her.
Demi Lovato‘s Dancing with the Devil premiered on March 23 on YouTube, featuring the first two episodes of what will ultimately be a four-part series. Initially, a film crew had been covering Lovato’s summer 2018 tour, but the project was scrapped when she suffered a nearly-fatal overdose in late July. The footage that would become Dancing with the Devil was shot in spring of 2020. Scenes from the original project are spliced in, which has an unsettling effect when the viewer is aware of what’s to come. Instead of showcasing the strange isolation of a major arena tour, the adoration of her fans, Demi’s admirable work ethic and commitment to sobriety (which appear to be the basis of the original project), this new film thus far focuses almost entirely on the overdose.
This is an unusual PR strategy for a pop star, and it’s an emotional watch. Traditionally, pop stars (especially former Disney pop stars) are supposed to be squeaky clean, virginal, safe. The kind of intensely dark topics Dancing with the Devil covers — eating disorders, mental health struggles, sexual assault, addiction and even death — are rarely part of the package. Our culture often romanticizes certain kinds of celebrities who grapple with addiction (particularly those who die young), but grotesquely eviscerates others. Britney Spears is a solid example; while she was very obviously dealing with a major mental health crisis, she became a laughingstock and the subject of dozens of terrible late-night TV hosts’ cruel monologues. It’s only recently that the Free Britney movement has led the public to reconsider Spears with some degree of compassion. Demi Lovato has not shied away from any of her demons, and this approach has made her a much more candid and complex artist than many of peers.
This is the third personal documentary Demi Lovato has released. Both 2012’s Stay Strong and 2017’s Simply Complicated also focused on Lovato’s mental health and history of substance abuse. The fact that she’s still candidly discussing her ongoing issues is significant, because this story cannot be neatly packaged. By naming these things, she also normalizes them. In Demi Lovato’s Dancing with the Devil, when given the opportunity to gloss over certain grim details about her own drug use, she is instead brutally honest. She is candid about both of her parents’ previous substance abuse issues and her father’s fatal overdose, and at no point is her own addiction glamorized. For young fans, seeing Lovato’s intertwined and ongoing struggles presented so bluntly is remarkable.
Demi’s position as a role model is mostly presented as something that’s been difficult to grapple with in the wake of everything else. In one clip from the 2018 film, DJ Khaled congratulates her on six years of sobriety on stage in front of thousands of cheering fans as she smiles bashfully (in the next screen, we learn that Lovato was already off the wagon and would overdose just a month later). In another scene, two young girls are absolutely teary-eyed while gushing about Demi means to them; their makeup is done exactly like hers. Later, Lovato explains that in an attempt to loosen her own dietary restrictions, she gained weight and has begun to feel uncomfortable in her stage outfits. She points to the sketches the designers have created, noting that even the model wearing the outfit in the sketch is impossibly tall and thin. Even while traveling with a sober companion, a psychologist, a nutritionist and a dietician in tow, she still found herself falling back into disordered eating, and eventually substance abuse. Friends describe how trapped Lovato had begun to feel, even while being monitored closely by people who seem to genuinely care about her and her wellbeing.
In the early morning of July 24, Demi overdosed on oxycodone that had been laced with fentanyl. While she was fading out, her drug dealer sexually assaulted her. She miraculously emerged on the other side, having suffered three strokes, a heart attack, multiple organ failures, pneumonia and temporary blindness. Doctors told her that if she had been found just five to ten minutes later than she was, she’d be dead. She still has blind spots in her line of vision and can no longer drive. This information is all presented very matter-of-factly; in fact Lovato makes it a point to stress that she doesn’t believe the public are actually aware of just how dire the situation had been. A friend wanly jokes that on Demi’s most recent birthday, he morbidly congratulated her on turning 28 and thereby avoiding the “27 Club,” a title reserved for celebrities who died at the age of 27. The list includes Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin and yes, Amy Winehouse. Lovato’s doctor also pipes up, explaining exactly how rare it is for a patient who suffered an overdose with such extensive organ failure to walk out of the hospital at all.
Demi Lovato does not have to tell this story, but it’s important that she does.
Demi Lovato’s Dancing with the Devil episodes 3 & 4 will premiere on YouTube on March 30, 2021.