close reads

Demi Lovato’s Documentary Is Acutely Aware of Its Image

Dancing With the Devil demonstrates how narratives can be filtered through images, and how we are so rarely afforded the full picture. Photo: YouTube Originals

Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil opens in a state of disbelief. Although Lovato’s friends and family have gathered to set the record straight about Lovato’s rehab and recovery since the 2018 overdose that threatened her life, they aren’t sure just how forthcoming they’re supposed to be. “So you just want to know everything?” her former assistant asks, with some incredulity. “Are we talking about heroin, are we doing that?” one of her best friends asks as the documentary shifts gears to Lovato’s relapse. “Okay then I’ll just tell you the real — I’ll just give you the real.”

Right away Lovato acknowledges why this candor is so important to her, and to the four episodes of Dancing With the Devil; she is matter-of-fact about the crushing pressure that hiding problems has had on her. She points to the 2018 footage of her Tell Me You Love Me tour embroidered into Dancing, during which she obscured her drug use at the time (something she also did in her 2011 documentary). After she overdosed, both the 2018 documentary and tour were canceled. Now Lovato has a lot to get off her chest. And already she’s making headlines for her unusually frank discussion of mental health, substance use, and sexual assault.

But Dancing With the Devil isn’t just a high-profile tell-all. It’s a canny demonstration of how narratives can be filtered through images, and how we are so rarely afforded the full picture. Instead of simply settling for an unearthed or updated documentary, Dancing With the Devil provides a masterclass in celebrity construction in real-time.

Such myth-making is the churn of the celebrity documentary, an art unto itself. As Sydney Urbanek writes of the blueprint laid out by Beyoncé’s Life Is But a Dream, one can typically expect “the use of prophetic home-video footage from her childhood, some staged ‘candid’ moments with her loved ones, and the odd performance segment to break things up.” The goal is to not just reiterate a narrative but to selectively deepen it, putting the star in control even when they claim to be hands-off.

Although Lovato’s origin story has been told before in 2017’s Simply Complicated, Dancing With the Devil still starts at the top. This time, though, her childhood is told with an emphasis on the difficulty of finding balance in the public eye. In this telling, Lovato’s story specifically orbits her strained relationship with her dad, her mother’s own issues with substances and disordered eating, and the “competitive” environments of beauty pageants and young stardom.

These guideposts are there to inform the next stage of the documentary, which is her 2018 relapse. While Lovato’s aim with this series isn’t that far out of step with most celebrity documentaries, those stories are not often as accessible as Lovato’s. As she (and her sister and friends) attest, being public about her problems has made her an icon for sobriety and mental health care — a pedestal that causes her more strife than comfort. “Because I’d been so open and honest about the things that I’d dealt with, I felt like I had to be this perfect role model,” Lovato says in some of the 2018 interview footage. Now, even as she reveals more of her inner life, she tells us she’s not sure what these labels mean to her.

Dancing With the Devil underlines the weight of this scrutiny, not just on Lovato but her loved ones. “5 Minutes From Death,” the second episode of the YouTube Originals docuseries, dedicates the first eight minutes to accounts of July 24 from those closest to her: first, the assistant who found her incapacitated; then her head of security; and then her friends and family — many of whom learned of her OD from push alerts before they got a call from Lovato’s team. The recounting from the inner circle is certainly a selective framing for addressing the issue, but this segment of Dancing With the Devil has the air of atonement — it’s not just a close group, it’s a blast radius.

With stardom comes a life constantly in the public eye. For Lovato, being open about her journey was just as much a tool for explanation as it was a shield to be simply human. When discussing her own sexual assault, Lovato cites watching Rihanna’s assault by Chris Brown play out in the press as an example of her fears about coming forward publicly; she felt traumatized and unable to cope, and adding other people’s interpretations of her choices would make it worse. As Lovato details in “5 Minutes From Death,” one of her first questions to her mom when she woke up after her overdose was, “Is it out there?” Only a few weeks later, still recovering from three strokes, a heart attack, permanent brain damage, pneumonia from asphyxiation, and multiple organ failure, Lovato took to Instagram to address her public. “What I’ve learned is that this illness is not something that disappears or fades with time,” she wrote. “It is something I must continue to overcome and have not done yet.”

Just as crucially as what we see is what’s left out. There are no tearful apologies for scaring her team, no performative thank-yous, even to the assistant who felt she had to sneak away to call an ambulance (just in time, as Lovato says doctors told her she had “five to ten more minutes”). It’s informational. For as much as Lovato seems to be disinfecting with sunlight, you can still feel a (understandable) boundary there; less laying bare, more disclosure.

Many behind-the-music documentaries like to give the illusion of naturalism, as if the star was merely captured in their everyday life with whole film crews in their living room. Not so with Dancing With the Devil, which frequently points to the intentional crafting on Lovato’s part, as she encourages her security lead, her neurologist, and even Dani Vitale — her choreographer and close friend whose birthday party she attended the night of the overdose — to be more forthright.

The third episode, released this week, opens with practically a direct address to correct the record. Although Vitale did not know the extent of Lovato’s relapse, the fans latched onto her as facilitating the overdose, targeting her online; the narrative hold was so strong that Vitale says she lost work. In the episode, Lovato tells her friend nothing is off-limits, even alluding to other prep they’d done off-camera: “Like I said, clear your name. Don’t be afraid of saying anything. And I just want the truth to be told, because you deserve that.” Whether it’s staged or not, Lovato’s pep talk speaks volumes about how deliberate the whole series is; amid the breathless editing, this is a program driven by the goals of the artist, and she wants her audience (up to and including her aggressive stans) to be aware of her messaging.

It’s baked into the structure of the documentary as well. Director Michael D. Ratner (who also directed Justin Bieber’s similarly candid Seasons for YouTube) anchors the audience in time wherever possible, presenting cell-phone footage of her doing the “Level Up” dance with friends hours before she overdosed. Selfies of Lovato on crack or heroin are suggestively interwoven with tour footage, where she’s gleefully scrappy as she drinks in an Amsterdam bar with her team.

It’s certainly (and likely intentionally) not as straightforward as Framing Britney, the New York Times documentary that provided audiences with a linear through line of the pop star’s life. The result is more like a social-media diary — personal, curated, and stronger once you have a better sense of the story and its scope. Just because some of Lovato’s life moments were captured on JumboTrons doesn’t mean we saw her life. And once you start looking for it, such contextualization is everywhere in Dancing With the Devil: The date on the clapperboard at the top of the setup tells us Lovato shot one of her interviews in June, while Vitale shot hers in November. Dates are superimposed over interviews or B-roll to clue us in on where she is in her tour, her recovery, her quarantine. We get a sense of different Demi Lovatos — and, most importantly, different personal truths — depending on where in her life we’re talking to her.

While the editing of the documentary can often feel jumpy, you can see in these choices how Dancing With the Devil hopes to turn the audience’s head. Although interviewees often widen the scope with talks of “we” or generalized addiction practices, the discussion always centers on Lovato. (A recovery like hers is only possible with the help of a pop star’s bank account.) This is her music, her recovery, and her future.

So it’s not surprising that the series ends with her presenting a new, controversial plan for sobriety (she now drinks and smokes weed in moderation) — or that we might come to doubt the success of the new strategy. Again and again we’re told how Lovato hid her addiction in plain sight, how past frankness hid her real world, how skilled she is at lying to even those closest to her about her habits. Even within the confines of this exhaustively honest project, she begins the first episode by talking to the crew behind the camera: “FYI, I’m just gonna say it all, and then if we don’t want to use any of it, we can just take it out.”

We don’t know what got taken out, what truths about this moment might be re-contextualized with new interviews later on. Like with any documentary, it’s up to us to decide what we think we’ve learned — and what to do with it. After all, we’ll never really get the full image.

Demi Lovato’s Documentary Is Acutely Aware of Its Image