tv review

Documenting Britney Spears

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos: Netflix; FX

With another hearing in the Britney Spears conservatorship case unfolding today (and raising the possibility that Spears’s father, Jamie, could finally be removed as the pop star’s longtime conservator), there has been a race to release multiple Spears-focused documentaries to feed the #FreeBritney interest.

Last Friday, the New York Times documentary Controlling Britney Spears, a follow-up to Framing Britney Spears, surprise-dropped on FX and Hulu, promising new details about the oppressive living conditions Spears has endured since 2008 under the control of her father and her managers. Sunday night, CNN aired Toxic: Britney Spears’ Battle for Freedom, a straightforward, nonrevelatory basic-cable rundown of Spears’s career and the controversies surrounding her conservatorship. And on Tuesday, Netflix started streaming Britney vs. Spears, a 90-minute-plus look at her rise to fame and the factors that led to her conservatorship, directed by documentarian Erin Lee Carr, who shares reporting duties with Rolling Stone contributor Jenny Eliscu.

Given the previous Fyre Fest documentary rivalry between Hulu and Netflix — in 2019, Hulu surprise-dropped Fyre Fraud a few days ahead of Netflix’s Fyre — those two Britney histories are attracting the most notice. Their timing, so close to each other as well as to today’s hearing, suggests a desire to capitalize on the boundless attention on Spears’s case. But knowing how much of her private life has been exposed for public consumption and the sake of entertainment, something that Framing Britney Spears interrogates in detail, is it appropriate at such a fraught turning point to once again dig for more dirt? The point of the #FreeBritney movement was to finally acknowledge that this woman genuinely needs help. Do these documentaries actually help?

In the case of Controlling Britney Spears, the answer is yes. Made following Spears’s lengthy and long-overdue testimony during a Zoom court hearing in June, the film, spearheaded by director Samantha Stark and supervising producer Liz Day, features interviews with sources who were willing to speak openly about the conservatorship after they heard Britney’s blunt testimony. As eyebrow-raising as the pop star’s words were, Controlling Britney Spears manages to raise eyebrows again with revelations about the extreme lengths her father and others have gone to keep Spears under their thumbs while still putting her money in their pockets. When considered in conjunction with Framing Britney Spears, it offers a more insightful, definitive consideration of not just Spears and her situation but how structures in our culture, from the media to the legal system, can be so easily manipulated to marginalize women.

“It reminded me of prison,” says Alex Vlasov, a former executive assistant of operations and cybersecurity at Black Box, the company that provided security for Spears at the behest of Jamie Spears and representatives from Britney’s management company, TriStar Sports and Entertainment Group. Having observed how her medications and movements were tracked as a result of the conservatorship, Vaslov provides the most damning information in the short film, including how Jamie Spears, Robin Greenhill at Tri Star, and Edan Yemini, Black Box’s head of security and Vlasov’s former boss, used a secret iPad to mirror all communications that came from Spears’s cell phone, including text messages between her and her lawyer. (Not a legal expert, but this certainly seems like a violation of attorney-client privilege!)

Like everything in Controlling Britney Spears, this information is presented in a cogent, journalistic fashion that is more interested in uncovering what Britney Spears has been facing away from the shiny filters of her Instagram feed rather than exploiting her. Already, its content has arguably been helpful to Spears; Mathew Rosengart, her attorney, filed a third request in court earlier this week to remove Jamie Spears from the conservatorship, citing the revelations in the documentary about the recording and monitoring of Spears’s communications.

To be clear, it is not a documentarian’s role to aid its subject or alter the trajectory of a court case, although sometimes they do have that effect. It is the job of a documentary to inform and enlighten, and do so in ways that make clear why its subject matter is relevant. Controlling Britney Spears builds on themes established in Framing Britney Spears, which revisited the widely circulated images of an angry, shaved-headed Britney and how they created a “Britney’s crazy” narrative that one could argue greased the wheels for the conservatorship. Once again, we see media clips, including some of Spears herself, that highlight the discrepancy between how alarmed the singer is by what’s happening to her and how casually her concerns are dismissed. (In one included scene from 2008’s documentary Britney: On the Record, Spears says she’s “horribly angry” about the conservatorship while everyone around her laughs.) Even if you’re not a fan of Spears, the pair of New York Times docs make it clear that her conservatorship should be of concern to everyone: If Britney Spears could have her rights stripped away, it could easily happen to you or someone you love.

Britney vs. Spears has a harder time contextualizing and making these broader connections. As Carr and Eliscu explain in the documentary, they started working on the project in 2019 with the intention of celebrating Spears’s music and career. After her conservatorship became such a news story — and after Framing Britney Spears pushed it even further into the spotlight — they retooled their movie to focus more on the conservatorship. The result is a piece that’s more personal, but also not as rigorous and objective.

Carr and Eliscu are open about their admiration of Spears and personal investment in telling this story. Carr describes falling in love with her music at age 10, while Eliscu, who has interviewed Spears on multiple occasions, shares how she managed to sneak past Spears’s security guards and hide in a hotel bathroom so she could help the artist sign papers expressing her desire for new legal representation. That turned out to be one of Spears’s many futile attempts to gain some control of the conservatorship process over the years.

The Netflix documentary places a lot of emphasis on a stack of previously unreleased documents in Spears’s case that were given to Carr and Eliscu by an anonymous source and that the pair read from at length. Perhaps the most shocking revelation is that the paperwork establishing the conservatorship identifies Spears’s affliction as “dementia,” a bold claim to make for a then-27-year-old who quickly became lucid enough to mount a career comeback.

Former paparazzo Adnan Ghalib, also an ex of Spears’s, and her former manager Sam Lutfi — the latter of whom Spears’s parents and some fans accused of attempting to exploit the star — both appear on-camera to recount their failed attempts to protect her. Lutfi implies that he became “the perfect scapegoat” for instituting the conservatorship. But Britney vs. Spears does not dig deeper into this allegation or ask truly hard questions of Lutfi.

While the movie spends its first 25 minutes or so revisiting the early days of her career, including the overwhelming paparazzi attention she received and her marriage to Kevin Federline, it avoids some of the darker moments on her timeline, perhaps out of deference to the star. But it also doesn’t connect the dots in the way the New York Times documentaries do. Because of its pivot to focus more on the conservatorship and its arrival after Controlling Britney Spears, a Netflix work that was originally intended to celebrate Britney unfortunately comes across as a bandwagon jump, a documentary that adds only a few more shades to the much more complete picture drawn by the New York Times and its partners on FX and Hulu.

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Documenting Britney Spears