Billie Eilish’s Documentary Might Remind You of Britney Spears’ Story—But Here’s Why It’s So Different

Billie Eilish: The World's A Little Blurry director R.J. Cutler opens up to E! News about the total autonomy and family support he witnessed while documenting the pop star's rapid rise.

By Billy Nilles, Spencer Lubitz Feb 27, 2021 2:00 PMTags
Watch: Billie Eilish Documentary Director R.J. Cutler Tells All

Billie Eilish: The World's a Little Blurry is many things.

It's a portrait of a musical wunderkind burgeoning on the precipice of global superstardom. It's a coming-of-age tale about a young woman asserting her independence. It's a fascinating look into the songwriting process of one of the most successful albums of the last few years. It's a concert film. 

And, perhaps most interestingly in this post-Framing Britney Spears world, the Apple TV+ documentary serves as a litmus test of sorts to how the industry machine has changed (or not) when it comes to the treatment of its preeminent pop star. 

Directed by R.J. Cutler, the doc follows Billie Eilish as she navigates life at just 17, balancing the pressures of a hectic touring schedule with the typical teenage concerns of lackluster boyfriends and driver's license exams, all while writing and recording her debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? Over the course of a year, we watch as she hits incredible highs (taking her dream car out for her first legal solo drive, sweeping the top categories at the 2020 Grammys) and worrisome lows (several physical injuries brought on by non-stop touring, an uncomfortable meet-and-greet full of mostly older male industry types).

By the time recent single "My Future" plays over the film's credits, rather poetically hinting at the crossroads that await Billie at this very moment in time, one can't help but wonder: Is she going to come out of all this OK?

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It's a worry that Cutler doesn't quite share, having spent the time he did with Eilish, her brother and creative collaborator Finneas O'Connell, and parents Maggie Baird and Patrick O'Connell, all of whom are ever-present in both the doc and her life in general.

"I don't know anything about Britney Spears outside of admiring her work. But, I do know a lot about Billie and I know that she has a tremendous support system and infrastructure," Cutler told E! News just hours before the film's Feb. 25 premiere. "I mean, her mom says it outright—it's not implied or suggested or hinted at in the film, it's a subject of the film. The fact that Billie's parents are with her all the time, that she is surrounded by family all the time, in large part to help give her the tools and the resources to avoid pitfalls that are common to young people when they become a successful and as famous as she's become so quickly and so early in her life and career."

That said, there are still moments in the film that point to the sometimes suffocating trappings of fame. There's the aforementioned meet-and-greet seemingly full of older men, the reasoning being they have connections to the record label or radio stations that play her music. Eilish, furious with her team and her mother for allowing it to happen, later likens the experience to having been "thrown to the wolves."

Immediately afterwards, we watch as an undulating mass of fans makes it so that her vehicle can barely drive down a New York City street, each face in the crowd vying for a moment to get close to the car window and snap a photo with their idol. They're everywhere she goes, even at her arrival gate in an Australian airport. They're adoring, sure, but also somewhat oppressive. 

Apple TV+

They're familiar scenes of either clout-chasing or pure, unfettered fandom. And, at least when it comes to the latter, Eilish seems to understand it—even if she does, at one point, express incredulity over the number of people who tune in to her Instagram Lives—having just been that sort of fan herself of Justin Bieber, who makes several key appearances in the film and whose own troubles with fame are discussed throughout.

"I think it's complicated," Cutler said when asked if he got any sense that it was all beginning to take its toll on Eilish. "I mean, the fame is a byproduct of her success. Her success is a wonderful thing. It creates a lot of opportunities. It creates a power and access to things that she didn't have before. It allows her to perform in front of bigger and bigger audiences. I mean, there's so much that that comes along with it. It confirms her place in the culture, but it's complicated. There are burdens that come along with it that are not insignificant and you see those burdens as well. So you see the full 360 degrees of being as famous as Billie Eilish becomes, as suddenly as she becomes."

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Cutler's film, culled from his own cinéma vérité-style shooting and footage shot by the family themselves, similarly doesn't shy away from the darker aspects of Eilish's personal life. We watch as her relationship with an inattentive boyfriend, who can't even be bothered to spend time with her after her Coachella performance even though he's there with a ticket she secured him, come to an end. We bear witness to an episode brought about by her Tourette's syndrome. And toward the film's end, Eilish opens up about her previous suicidal ideation and self-harm.

"My goal was to tell the truth and the full truth, and to tell a complete portrait of who this young woman is and the experiences that she went through in this year," Cutler said. "So it wasn't difficult to include the more challenging material because it's truthful to who she was. My goal was to see her as clearly as possible."

Apple TV+

With concerns about pop star personal autonomy currently at the forefront of our cultural conscience, Cutler stressed that his observations of Eilish revealed a young woman absolutely in charge. 

"She is the only one who makes decisions," he said when asked about her agency over her career. "She's the decision maker, she's the boss. In fact, the only thing I ever saw her not be the boss of was this film, [of] which she gave me final cut. She trusted me and she supported me. She recognized that I was there making a work of art out of her life, and my filmmaking that was happening while her life was happening. But in every other aspect of her business or life, Billie's the boss. She has surrounded herself with very talented, wise adults who recognize that. As one of them once said to me, she's right about everything. It doesn't mean they don't advise her sometimes if they don't think she's right, but when she makes a decision, they support her."

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In fact, it's that familial support that Cutler believes is central to Eilish's success in every aspect of her life. "Certainly [it's] a movie about the coming of age of an artist, and a significant artist, and a world famous artist, but it's every bit as much a film about the coming of age of a young woman who's a very normal kid," he explained. "A kid from a working class background who lives in Highland Park and, of course, has an enormous gift, works incredibly hard to develop it, is tough on herself and has the great, good fortune to have as her nearest and dearest collaborator and creative soulmate—her brother—and then these parents who are utterly devoted to her and her brother becoming their truest selves. And, you know, that's the story."

Nothing blurry about it.

Billie Eilish: The World's A Little Blurry is available now on Apple TV+.