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SXSW

MOVIE REVIEW
Charli XCX: Alone Together (2022)

This short (67 minutes) documentary about underappreciated pop star Charli XCX owes a great deal to “Madonna: Truth or Dare” (aka “In Bed With Madonna”). Well, most every music documentary is in the shadow of “Truth or Dare” but here the parallels are explicit. Alek Keshishian’s revolutionary documentary focused on the closed world of Madonna and her dancers on tour; here co-directors Bradley Bell and Pablo Jones-Soler focus on the closed world of a singer and her fans (many of whom are gay, hence the movie being shown as part of BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival) in private online spaces during the 2020 lockdown. And while Warren Beatty famously whined that Madonna didn’t want to live off-camera, there seems to be no moment of Charli’s life where she’s not performing for a camera. The key difference, of course, is that Madonna’s dancers were professionals, paid to be there, while Charli’s fans – Angels, of course – are teenagers and young adults from around the world, desperate for attention from a singer who puts that desperation to work for her.

Did the person who put great lyric ideas into the live Instagram feed get songwriting credit? When Charli announces she wants to publish a book of the fan art she receives, will the artists be getting a cut of the royalties? It would seem it is hopelessly old-school to want to see people – especially young girls and gay kids miserable in their bedrooms, who only feel safe online with their friends – paid for their ideas. The pandemic has blurred a lot of lines for everybody, but it’s a shame that someone so eager to participate in the community built around her work doesn’t hesitate to ask that community to work on her behalf for free. It’s even harder to take when you look at how carefully Charli blocks off her own life. During the six months or so the film covers, she shared her Los Angeles house with two old friends/managers who shot most of this film, one of whom manages to avoid appearing on camera. We never see anyone eating. Her boyfriend, Huck Kwong, is nearly silent, even when Charli is narrating the story of their relationship to the camera. It’s a strange illusion of closeness and intimacy, which feels meaningful on the surface but vanishes like confetti shot from a cannon.

The hook of the documentary is to show the process of how the album “How I’m Feeling Now” was created as an early lockdown project, but the actual creative process is mostly not shown and the ideas themselves are carefully guarded. Instead the focus is on her relationship with the Angels, about a half dozen of whom are profiled in detail, as they explain why they like her music and what they get from being a superfan. But Charli’s pop sensibilities and songcrafting skills are second to no one’s so the fans mostly serve as a test audience. The many online interactions, valuable as something to anticipate as lockdown drags on, are as one-sided as that of a kindergarten teacher and her classroom. It’s better than nothing, but it’s certainly not a group of riotous, rowdy dancers acting out backstage. Sometimes we are shown Charli’s video diaries or live posts where she seems genuinely upset, but the one times her parents call in concern about something she put on the internet, she shrugs them off in a way that implies the upset was exaggerated for impact, not that she’s trying to spare her mother’s feelings. And while Madonna clearly never forgot the cameras were there, she wasn’t doing the filming herself. All she had to do was perform. Charli’s here having to self-edit on camera, too.

It must be quite difficult, trying to live your real life so that its portrayal most appeals to your audience. Authenticity is the dream, but that went out the window when Madonna did that thing with the champagne bottle. It’s no wonder people in the public eye crack up, when the difference between your self and your act vanishes and social media puts your audience in the palm of your hand constantly and forever. For someone to talks about how much her work means to her and buoyed she feels by the support of the Angels, it’s rare for Charli to smile over the course of the film – which feels a lot longer than it is.

So what is the movie for? It’s a demonstration of how one hardworking and talented woman took the misery of summer 2020 as a chance to make some dance-pop to cheer everyone up, starting with herself. This is a noble endeavor; and that’s meant with a sincerity the overall tone of this review doesn’t quite convey. It’s just that the current relationship between performer and audience, as shown in this movie, is draining and damaging for everyone; and it’s depressing that no one seems to imagine a better way forward. Boundaries could be respected, privacy could be maintained, and good work could be fairly compensated with no one in tears about feeling worthless. No one is ever worthless, of course, but someone’s worth is rarely measured fairly. A better documentary about an artists and her fans would have been smart enough to give both sides their due.

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