They’re not my friends. They’re part of me.
Whether you enjoy her music or not, it’s tough to deny that there’s a story that needs to be told around Grammy-winning artist Billie Eilish. She and her brother Finneas O’Connell uploaded “Ocean Eyes” to SoundCloud when she was thirteen. They recorded their first full-length album in his bedroom when she was sixteen. And they’ve become worldwide sensations performing at the Oscars and writing the latest James Bond theme song all in the matter of about five years—the last two being a whirlwind of fame and chaos compared to a childhood of homeschooling by their parents. Compounding things with physical ailments, Tourette’s syndrome, and depression all while juggling a desire to be a teenager thrust into the spotlight overnight would destroy most people, but she’s still standing.
R.J. Cutler‘s documentary Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry getting billed as an intimate look at her journey from bedroom to international stardom teases answers as to how she’s survived it all. Such insight depends on your definition of “intimate,” though, since an uncensored deep dive into the nuts and bolts of the process isn’t the same as a curated collage of behind-the-scenes footage taken during that time. If you (like me) were hoping to find the former here, know that you should probably lower your expectations because Cutler has been tasked with the latter instead. So rather than really dig into the minefield of emotions and insanity, he’s compiled a promotional video that superficially touches upon such things instead. This is Eilish’s success, not her struggle.
I’m sure this truth is exactly what her fans want, though. They want to watch her rise to this stratosphere of celebrity and believe it happened on the back of hard work and perseverance. They want to see her adversity as the reason she got back up to give them music that’s touched their souls. She’s their hero: a young woman dealing with a world in turmoil who refuses to let it defeat her. It’s inspiring and relatable. Billie even had a crush on Justin Bieber like they did when they were kids, but she actually met him and became his friend too. Cutler has ostensibly strung together all the feel-good moments that resonate with fans in a way that allows them to live vicariously through her experiences.
The result is therefore more of a mirror for the audience to see themselves in than a definitive account of what Billie went through. Painful truths like hating songwriting or dealing with an indifferent boyfriend at an age where breaking things off for self-care isn’t thought of as an option are treated as anecdotes rather than crucial aspects of her ever-evolving identity. Cutler inevitably cuts forward to something else every time things start to get real as though that last issue had somehow been resolved simply because the conversation ended. What about how it affected Billie? What about its impact outside of her crying during her concert the next day? This should be the venue to cut through the artifice and yet it sadly becomes just another façade.
I found myself frustrated throughout as a result because the most poignant moments are those where Billie recognizes the ways in which she is being bought and sold as a commodity. She sprains her ankle during the first song of one show and ultimately breaks down before running off-stage. The fact that she’s then manipulated to finish the show and put all those people who paid money above her own psychological wellbeing shouldn’t be presented as a feel-good moment of tenacity like it is. It shouldn’t be “American exceptionalism” propaganda because it’s actually a moment she can point to and say, “This is wrong.” It’s a moment for her fans to acknowledge their complicity in the destruction of teenage lives lost to the allure of fame and fortune.
How does Billie overcome that injury emotionally? We watch her go through physical therapy and laugh at the slomotion video of her ligament tear. We watch her utilize coping mechanisms like “baby voiced” embarrassment to diffuse the room and avoid the crippling pain. We’re watching her lose herself. Even when a “bad day” leads to bad press, we listen as she tells her mother and team that they can’t let her be seen that way. She and everyone around her make the issue about her when it’s really about an industry and journalism pool feeding on the fact that they can turn a toxic perspective on mental health into clicks instead of protecting this child. Because if this documentary tells us anything, it’s that. She’s a child.
That should be the hook rather than the unfortunate truth. We should be discovering what that means rather than blindly moving through the highlights when the toll of everything left out is so obviously weighing upon her. But I guess the public is only interested in that stuff in hindsight. They only care about how these young women were treated while being bought and sold after they’ve become the tragedy our society craves just as much as the success. So we’re asked to laugh as Billie flips back through her journal towards “dark times” instead of hope that she’ll be able to reckon with them. We’re asked to believe the life her talent has afforded is enough to overcome that darkness instead of merely avoiding it for later.
I wanted to hear what happened next after Billie rejected Finneas and their parents’ desire for her to make the music more accessible. I wanted to hear her speak without the necessity that this whole thing be a cool adventure she shouldn’t let capture anything she might regret in the future (a topic that’s also discussed and forgotten as quickly as it starts). That’s intimacy. That’s truth. Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry can’t help presenting itself as the opposite almost from the beginning. It’s a promotional item more akin to reality television keeping its authenticity “on script” than actual candidness with something important to say. It’s fun watching her meet Orlando Bloom and sing on-stage, but that only sells records. It doesn’t provide insight.
 Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell in “Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry,” premiering globally February 26, 2021 on Apple TV+.
 Billie Eilish and her mother, Maggie Baird, in “Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry,” premiering globally February 26, 2021 on Apple TV+.
 Billie Eilish and her father, Patrick O’Connell, in “Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry,” premiering globally February 26, 2021 on Apple TV+.