Toward the middle of her new documentary, The World’s a Little Blurry, pop star Billie Eilish expresses exhaustion at the constant scrutiny she lives under. Someone on social media wrote about her being “rude” at a meet and greet. “I was like, Yo, I can’t have one moment,” she complains to her mom (and personal assistant), Maggie Baird, palpably frustrated. “I never have one moment and I had one moment and there it is, written about.”
The annoyance is understandable given the swiftness and intensity of the 19-year-old’s rise to global stardom. She smashed streaming records before taking pop culture by storm with her anthemic hit “Bad Guy,” which became 2019’s song of the summer. Her debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, featuring her spooky imagery and introspective lyrics, also shot to No. 1.
She was on every magazine cover, proclaimed the voice of her generation, and capped off the era by sweeping every major category — Best New Artist, as well as Song, Album, and Record of the Year — at the 2020 Grammys.
Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry, out on Apple TV+, follows the format of other recent documentaries focused on pop stars, from Lady Gaga to Taylor Swift. The films eschew talking heads or narration, opting to plop fans into the supposed cinema verité–style reality of a famous singer In this case, the documentary follows the period between Eilish making her album and her Grammy victory lap.
“You go on this journey with Billie,” director R.J. Cutler, famous for his Vogue and Anna Wintour doc, The September Issue, told EW last month. “There’s nothing between you and the subject. You’re in the rooms, you’re in the cars, you’re on the planes, you’re everywhere she is. You’re on stage and nobody is analyzing it for you. You’re having your own unique experience.”
The film is largely made up of behind-the-scenes footage shot by (and often featuring) Eilish’s now fabled family — including her former actor parents and producer brother, Finneas. It documents the strenuous demands of being a very young woman in the industry, from the making of the album to the grueling performing and industry functions, especially relevant amid the current debate about teen female artists’ agency.
The narrative ultimately hews too close to the family mythology to be truly revelatory, and like most recent music documentaries of pop stars endorsed by the stars themselves, it provides no real cultural insight into the Eilish phenomenon. The tiny glimpses of the pressure placed on Eilish are arguably the most revealing parts, but fans will love the tantalizing and curated peek behind the scenes.
The supposed backstage access offered by pop star documentaries has become increasingly unnecessary, at least since Instagram and social media brought these musicians down to earth — almost too much. We see them in their homes (just like us!), we know their politics, and even their burping is now a sign of authenticity.
But The World’s a Little Blurry benefits from the Eilish family’s savvy, because it presents unseen footage that they started recording right after Eilish was signed by Justin Lubliner’s Interscope subsidiary label around 2016.
“When she was 13, Billie Eilish posted a song called Ocean Eyes online,” the documentary proclaims at the beginning with text on the screen, and then flashes forward to the family’s reality “three years later.”
It doesn’t delve into any context before that moment, like her parents’ relationship to or feelings about show business, or her own experiences as an industry-adjacent, LA kid. The film feeds into the mythology of a naive family, propelled by organic Soundcloud fame, skipping over the less-chronicled period between the release of the “Ocean Eyes” ballad and her rise to online and Instagram stardom.
Eilish appears already fully formed, with her blaccent and hip-hop-inspired outfits, as she promotes her music and makes her album, and is already, as her brother puts it, overly “woke” about her online persona.
Still, the film compellingly lays out how her stardom channels a DIY family vibe with corporate backing. We’re introduced to the earnestly arty stage parents with their nonhierarchical mode of communication (“I’m giving you total empathy,” Baird says when Eilish complains).
There is footage of her sketching out the iconic music video for “Bury a Friend” with her family, and then on an actual video set. And the film captures the sweet chemistry present in her relationship with her brother, unique in the history of teen star collaboration. The scenes of them crafting hits like “Bad Guy” and singing the finished version of the plaintive “I Love You” to their parents feel genuinely intimate.
The debates between Baird, Finneas, and Eilish also offer revealing glimpses into their creative process. For instance, Baird and Finneas attempt to massage the record company’s directive that they craft an obvious hit. (“You could experiment with making something that you still like, but maybe is a little bit more conventional,” says Baird.)
Eilish is depicted as the empowered head of the creative process, as they showcase “My Strange Addiction” to Lubliner and other industry reps in the intimacy of her bedroom. She successfully leaves in the dark references to suicide in the song “Listen Before I Go” (against her mother’s wishes) and speaks candidly in an interview about cutting herself because she felt so despondent.
As she becomes more and more successful, the family sometimes loses the ability to control her surroundings. Eilish chafes, for instance, at having to constantly meet strangers — and industry people — after her concerts.
“I don’t want to be shoved into meeting a bunch of random kids that only want a picture with me,” she tells her mom. “It doesn’t feel good.” “You were failed by me and your whole team yesterday,” Baird replies. And the conflicts really illustrate the difficulties of shepherding a teenage girl into the music industry, setting boundaries, and Eilish’s feelings of literal objectification as a photo prop.
The enormity of Eilish’s stardom is juxtaposed with more relatable moments. We see her get her driver’s license, for example, and watch as she grapples with heartbreak after she ends a relationship with rapper Brandon Adams, whom she calls Q. She rocks out to a Tove Lo breakup song with her best friend, in one of the more poignantly teen moments.
The inherent limitation of these types of verité-style pop star documentaries is that they are mostly like scrapbooks for fans, and skimp on cultural or musical insights. We learn about Eilish’s obsession with Justin Bieber and see the arc come full circle when she meets him and he jumps on her song remix. (He could sing about poop and she’ll love the remix, she jokes. “Embrace it all, believe you are great; but not greater than anyone,” he DMs her.) But we don’t hear much, for instance, about the sibling’s specific musical influences, or why, as she says early on in the doc, she hates songwriting. Eilish and her family bring up her fear of haters and the internet more generally, but without more context or specific examples, we don’t know why she fears them.
While Mom and daughter laugh off critiques about her album being “satanic,” in real life, Eilish has already faced less easily dismissed backlashes about her relationship to hip-hop culture. Sociologically, she is in some ways like a female counterpart to Post Malone, benefiting from being one of the “white kids who grew up on the Black Internet,” as Paper magazine recently put it.
Predictably, none of this is addressed. The film ends with Finneas pointing out that their Grammy wins mean that anything is possible, as the film veers into Never Say Never territory with its message about family and overcoming obstacles. “We made this album in a bedroom, at our house, that we grew up in, and it was mastered in somebody’s living room,” he tells reporters. “So it’s really like anything is possible.” (He also faced backlash after tweeting out cringingly self-congratulatory advice: “Make shit so good it speaks for itself. Don’t pester people to work with you, let them come to you.”)
The only obstacles for the siblings in this compellingly constructed portrait seem to come from being selected by the industry for major stardom. Still, musical celebrity in the streaming era puts very particular pressures on young women pop stars, from body scrutiny to demands for constant likability and personal revelations. So far, the family has been able to insulate Eilish from the worst of it.
“This is gonna be wild for 10 years,” Katy Perry says to Eilish when they meet. Perry adds that she can reach out “if you ever wanna talk. ’Cause it’s a weird ride.” And Eilish’s ride is just beginning.●