A look inside the new era of musical documentaries


“I grew up loving documentaries like Believe Y Never say Never, “admits the 19-year-old musical phenomenon, referencing Justin Bieber’s popular concert movies. So when a camera crew showed up at his childhood home in Los Angeles in 2018 to film a documentary about the making of his debut album, she welcomed them with open arms, if not exactly optimistic. “My whole family and I thought, ‘Hey, it’s never going to come out,'” she says. “It’s been pretty crazy and surreal since then”.

By Billie Eilish When we all fall asleep, where do we go? emerged as a multiplatinum, the great Grammy hit, which made the resulting film, The world a little blurry, not only a reality, but also highly anticipated. Its release this Friday on Apple TV + falls just a few weeks after the 10th anniversary of when fans like Eilish sat anxiously in a movie theater and helped make Bieber’s first movie. Never say Never, the highest grossing music documentary of all time (nearly $ 100 million worldwide), thus ushering in a new wave. The decade since then has seen other A-list musicians, such as Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, Travis Scott, and more, engage in films of a similar nature, focusing on their personal lives, with one particular blessing occurring throughout the year. last.

Philosophically, the question of why world superstars accept being followed by cameras for a year or so is a difficult one to answer. But Scott Manson, COO of music management company SB Projects, offers a pragmatic reason. The Executive Producer of YouTube Originals 2020 Papers’ Justin Bieber: Next Chapter and Netflix’s Ariana Grande: Excuse me, I love you says: “Usually they are based on a moment or phase of the artist’s career that is really critical for the artist, first of all, to capture … The artist will come to us with the moment or moment being obvious in terms of impact and scale. ”

According to a veteran film finance executive, “It’s exciting for artists to work independently because they have more control,” but it’s also a long wait before seeing any financial benefits. “Although there are certain financial incentives for some of these artists, they are not paid like in a casting,” adds a source who has worked on high-profile music documentaries. “There are [no] rate on camera. That is a very big distinction. In that way, these narratives are being driven by third parties. Maybe it’s a filmmaker, maybe a financier, or a creative producer who sees an opportunity. ”And in the interests of the artists they represent, Manson adds that SB Projects often shoots exploratory footage up to the aforementioned moment or phase that requires a full documentary. “We always avoid releasing something that is not fully creatively prepared,” he says. “Even if there is a bidding war, we don’t want to put our artists in a position [in which] they are stuck delivering a story that they are not inspired by or have no creative control over. ”

When it’s time to partner with a director to clarify that vision, it’s all about trust. Summoned for a preliminary meeting with Eilish, filmmaker RJ Cutler (The September issue) was impressed by how the singer’s “incredibly warm family was so welcoming” on his first visit. “It was very easy for me to get comfortable with them.” He and the young star found out that day that they were destined to make a movie together. “If it’s easy for everyone to be themselves in the first meeting, you have the feeling that there is something there,” says Cutler. Eilish adds: “It was really sweet … He walked through his plan. Something fit. And it made sense.”

At the other end of the spectrum, singer Demi Lovato, whose new YouTube Originals series Dancing with the devil premiered on March 23, she had known director Michael D. Ratner for years before they decided to work together. “I met him as a friend [first]”Lovato says.” So when we started, I already trusted him. I didn’t have to strain to get comfortable. By the time I sat down to talk about what had happened, two years had passed and I was ready to tell the world everything. ”

“A better connection, more intimacy and trust,” adds the aforementioned source. “With a lot of these guys, you talk to them after they’ve filmed [doc], and their relationships with the filming and the filmmaker are very different [than] in the beginning. In many cases, the subject is almost surprised that certain things have been revealed. ”

In that sense, becoming a cinematic subject has practically replaced in-depth magazine cover stories and television network sit-ins as an avenue for artists to reveal themselves in a new light. “You don’t necessarily know what that journalist is going to write about you, but often [here] you are fixing an artist who tells his story with another artist who has the final cut in [that] “Manson says. While not directly analogous to traditional journalism, the musician who trusts the filmmaker” has created this kind of magical creative sandbox for filmmakers to interact with global superstars who are also artists and see how they collaborate. “

Lovato, for example, felt a sense of ownership over the story that Ratner was telling through the documentary series. “I was able to create the precise narrative of what happened to me, without worrying about it being edited by a press or a media outlet,” he explains.

If artists find the ideal medium to avoid the press, distributors see it as a quick step to front-page news. In fact, you may have noticed that all of the projects mentioned above found eye-catching houses on the streaming platforms. “All streamers use the same expression, which is creating the ‘cultural moment’,” says the informed source. “How do we create a cultural moment around the Jonas Brothers? You drop the album simultaneously with the first documentary. You have a follow-up documentary two years later, and you do it on a global streamer …. Streaming is no longer a pejorative media of distribution “. (Streamers also have cash to spend: Apple reportedly spent $ 25 million to acquire Cutler’s Eilish movie.)

Michael John Warren, who has directed nonfiction projects focused on Jay-Z and Nicki Minaj, including an upcoming HBO Max documentary series about the latter, adds that streaming partnerships benefit filmmakers as well. “There is a little more freedom to experiment, to really do what you want to do,” he says. “I don’t mean to say less is at stake, but if you were putting something on MTV in primetime 10 years ago, MTV would have to say, ‘Okay, this is all we have on the air tonight at eight o’clock.’ clock.’ [Meanwhile] see what Netflix does. They’re not just trying to become a television network; they are trying to become television. That’s their thing, they are so wide. ”

As more streaming services launch and they hope to attract new customers, Manson asks, “What better way to market your subscription-based platform than [to] offer millions of existing and potential future subscribers an intimate look at their idols? ”

YouTube Originals director Susanne Daniels also promises flexibility. “Sometimes we are presented with a job [that’s completed], and it’s a bidding war, “he says.” But sometimes people come to us with something that is partially finished. That was the case with our documentary on Johnny Cash [The Gift, 2019]. We acquired it based on what we saw, and then they finished it with us. [And] sometimes it’s an initial release, like Justin Bieber: Seasons [2020]. We are there with them from day one. ”

Daniels also has a theory as to why stars like Bieber, Lovato and Minaj, who have made long-running documentaries, came back with a more extensive focus. She posits that duration is determined from project to project by a variety of sources, admitting: “It’s something that gets thrown around more and it’s something we like to do. I think our audience likes to watch in chapters. Over the five years and As I’ve been here, the data shows that people watch YouTube content for longer periods of time. And certainly, during the pandemic, we’ve seen watch time go up significantly. People enjoy chapters, they enjoy bingeing on episodes, yes Will. So it’s a different way of telling the story, and sometimes it’s a more moving way of telling the story. “

For Lovato, the decision to count Dancing with the devil, which presents a more heartbreaking tone than the average of these documents, was triggered by life events. “I had already started filming this one in 2018, but after I overdosed, I had to switch gears because my life took drastic changes,” he says. “It covers what led me to that moment that changed my life through my recovery … I had gone through different stages in this process and that’s why we wanted to tell it like this.”

It is no secret that these movies and series have exploded in the context of COVID-19 and the resulting hiatus from live events. “The pandemic has slowed down the speed at which everything is moving. And it probably has [people] more time to think about making a documentary, “says Warren. As they think of ways to connect with and inspire fans without being able to tour, musicians ask,” What am I going to do now? “Warren continues:” They are artists; They have to [have] production. That’s part of what makes them happy, is doing things. ”

The timing of the market couldn’t be better. “There is definitely a global appeal and also an appetite, especially from streamers, to tap into the magic and existing fan bases of some of these great personalities,” says Manson. Documentary J Balvin from SB Projects The boy from Medellin, which Amazon acquired last fall, exemplifies that possibility, with Oscar-nominated director Matthew Heineman (Earth poster) following the Reggaeton icon, home to Colombia, to perform at a soccer stadium.

This all feels new, at least as a trend. But, Cutler notes, it may not be. Citing revered music documents such as Do not look back (1965) and Give me shelter (1970), which followed Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, respectively, The world a little blurry The director sees a historical precedent. As he himself puts it, those classics claimed “that these movies could be commercial, that they could live on a big screen, that Mick Jagger was as worthy to be the star of a movie as was Robert Redford.”

“That is the great tradition that many of us are working on, pursuing these films,” he concludes. “If you’re looking for a great song, you don’t have to look any further than Billie Eilish.”

A version of this story appears in the March issue of Weekly entertainment, on newsstands now and available here. Don’t forget to subscribe for more interviews and exclusive photos, only on EW.

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