Sundance choosing to open its 2020 film festival with a Taylor Swift documentary distributed by Netflix may have seemed like an off-brand choice at first: The annual Park City-based event was created to celebrate independent filmmaking, known for launching intimate flicks that, yes, regularly carry star power, but that star power is often presented in muted, more unexpected ways than a documentary about perhaps the most famous pop star in the world.
But "Miss Americana," directed by Emmy-winning documentarian Lana Wilson, does indeed take Swift's star power and turn it on its head: We see the celebrated singer more unguarded and unglamorous than ever before, with Wilson pulling back the curtain on some of Swift's most career-defining moments and storylines, interweaving them into one cohesive narrative that will give the most casual viewer a greater understanding of how Swift got to where she is now.
While much has been made already about whether or not Swift's private actor boyfriend, Joe Alwyn, made it into the film (he does, albeit during a brief sequence that never shows him head-on) and the "Me!" hitmaker's reveal that she has struggled with an eating disorder, the crux of "Miss Americana" — and perhaps the ark that will allow some of her biggest critics to empathize with her most — lies in Swift's journey to finding her voice when it comes to political and social issues.
Swift memorably broke her political silence ahead of the midterm elections in 2018 on Instagram, dispelling any speculation around her party alignment, but skeptics have still maintained (and, perhaps, rightfully so) one major point of criticism: If she was so anti-Trump, then why did she remain silent during the 2016 election?
Taylor Swift at the 2020 Sundance premiere of "Miss Americana." (Credit: Getty Images)
Swift, with Wilson's help, places that decision in some much-needed context throughout "Miss Americana," explaining in no uncertain terms that she had been reminded since she was a young girl that country music and politics don't mix: Listeners, as they memorably told the Dixie Chicks after they criticized President George W. Bush, want their singers to just shut up and sing. That message was indoctrinated into Swift, with those around her encouraging her to stay silent on divisive topics in order to not alienate fans and to avoid the Dixie Chicks' fate at outcasts from the industry.
But after her sexual assault trial several years ago, Swift's mentality around silence began to change: She spoke out when a radio DJ allegedly groped her, and she was generally supported and believed. If she were to speak out some more, maybe the same would happen, she realized.
In one of the most memorable scenes in "Miss Americana," Swift breaks down in tears as she explains to her father that she needs to speak out against Marsha Blackburn ahead of the midterms, with Blackburn running a campaign in Tennessee based around her aggressively conservative beliefs.
"I can’t see another commercial [with] her disguising these policies behind the words ‘Tennessee Christian values.’ I live in Tennessee. I am Christian. That’s not what we stand for," she says in the film. "I need to be on the right side of history. … Dad, I need you to forgive me for doing it, because I’m doing it."
Later, right as she's about to press "send" on the Instagram post that represented the breaking of her political silence, her publicist, Tree Paine, warns that President Trump could "come after" her in response.
Swift's answer to that? "Yeah, f**k that," which garnered an eruption of applause at the Sundance screening I attended on Friday morning.
The message here is clear: While it may have taken her longer than some of her peers to publicly take a stand around divisive political and social issues, Swift did eventually get there. And, not only did she get there, but she arrived with such a steady stream of unapologetically strong statements that if almost felt as though she was making up for lost time.
For a woman who came of age in the music industry surrounded by older men who were constantly reminding her what was at risk if she took a side, it's no wonder that the singer was late to letting her fans in in this new, potentially risky way. But, since she did that, Swift has emerged as one of the most important voices for women in the entertainment industry, using her massive platform to speak out and inform, all which is made clear during "Miss Americana."
Immediately after the Sundance screening wrapped, I was convinced that the documentary would endear Swift to everyone who saw it: Who wouldn't be affected by such an emotionally raw and eye-opening movie about a star we all thought we already knew so well?
But then the lights turned on and the audience began to throw their winter jackets back on to brave the Park City cold, and a young man in his 20s turned to his friend and said of Swift, "God, she is so calculated."
So, maybe "Miss Americana" won't convince everyone of Swift's journey, and that's okay. She knew she was taking that risk when she first shared her political views with the world — and you know what her response would probably be to that now? "F**k that!"
"Miss Americana" premieres on Netflix on January 31, 2020.