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When queer, genre-bending hip hop artist Lil Nas X first shot to fame with the infectious track “Old Town Road,” he appeared to be the culmination of Napster’s revolution. When the music download service emerged, it rendered the physical digital. Ever since then, music has been waiting for a totally viral music star. In 2019, “Old Town Road” and “Panini” became major hits. But the pandemic made touring those earworms impossible. So in the span of lockdowns, maskings, and a vaccine, the rapper released his debut album “Montero,” spawning even more chart-topping singles. For three years, in fact, Lil Nas X exclusively existed in streams and social media — the perfect digital icon for an identity conscious generation.
“Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero,” a hagiographic, thinly composed concert documentary, follows the artist on his debut tour. You’d expect that directors Carlos López Estrada (“Blindspotting”) and Zac Manuel (“Descendant”) would focus on the nerves the rapper must feel becoming a live act and the responsibility and journey he experiences as a gay Black man in a hypermasculine genre. While the film does attempt to cover those topics, the result is merely broad, rarely revealing any further details about Lil Nas X’s personal life, his thoughts outside of music, or any component of him that doesn’t exist in the narrowly defined line of the tour.
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That doesn’t mean the documentary is a total missed opportunity. We do witness the effort and artistry required for the rapper to mount this show. These slim behind the scenes sequences will probably delight his fans. Take how toward the beginning, we see Lil Nas X performing in front of a sold out crowd, only for a match cut to reveal an empty auditorium during the artist’s grueling rehearsal. Lopez and Manuel’s documentary is filled with these moments, displaying Lil Nas X’s work ethic and his creative ideas. These are the kind of moments we expect in such a film. The problem with this concert doc, however, is how the unexpected never occurs.
Rather “Long Live Montero” concerns transformation. It primarily occurs in the very rigors of touring: We begin on day zero, on the eve of his first concert in Detroit in 2022, and traverse through New York City, his home state of Georgia, Los Angeles, and finally in San Francisco. For the most part, these stops blur into one with few noteworthy events. The lone exception is when Lil Nas X visits Boston; a group of protestors charge the rapper with corrupting the youth with his queerness. The rapper trolls them, sending a pineapple pizza to their picket line and making a trolling TikTok about how he found one of the homophobic men cute. In a narrative about a viral music star, it’s shocking the filmmakers didn’t do more to match their aesthetic to the online world their subject inhabits.
The film balances this act of transformation with Lil Nas X performing his biggest hits: “Sun Goes Down,” “Call Me By Your Name” (a song he calls his most freeing), and of course “Old Town Road.” The performances of these tunes are shot with vigor by Manuel and Pablo Berron, whose intimate camera offers the most immersive component to the documentary, shooting the music star in mythic proportions on stage and steamy sensuality of himself and the choreographed dancers occupying a rotating array of stagings (Afrofuturist influences and French Renaissance settings).
If only the rest of the film dived as deep. Sure, some of the interviews are conducted while Lil Nas X, shirtless, relaxes under a white sheet, but an open setting isn’t the same as openness. Instead the artist’s bewitching personality, powered by an insatiable wit, papers over the little insight we’re given into him: his likes and dislikes, tastes and loves — made even more distant by his charming brand of humor. The major exception to that shortcoming arises whenever the rapper shares his insecurities with his faith and whether his family truly accepts him or are merely placating a meal ticket. It’s that kind of interrogation of stardom, particularly being a Black gay man in a deeply religious household that you wish permeated the rest of the documentary.
The filmmakers do their best to fill in those holes, utilizing a cliche butterfly metaphor to further explain the artistic and personal transformation Lil Nas X is undergoing as a live act and pop culture icon. But it’s not nearly enough of anything substantial, eventually overshadowing the fun and important representational aspects of “Long Live Montero” with a shiny, self-effacing, brand building, pop mythologizing gauze.
“Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero” world premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.
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