The Taylor Swift brand has long been set as the girl next door, the cat lover, the hopeless romantic. The savvy businesswoman who also takes pleasure in recklessly leaving her Christmas lights up until January and picking up bottles on New Year's Day. In her 15-year career, she’d perfected the art of letting the world intimately know her without really knowing her at all.
And were it not for Miss Americana (premiering on Netflix, Jan. 31), that superficial status quo could have continued apace, with only glimpses of an unguarded Swift, 30, seeping through in her songwriting or the occasional Instagram story.
Instead, Emmy-winning director and self-professed "not a cat person" Lana Wilson, 37, spent months with the world's biggest pop star, peeling back Swift's layers and humanizing her in a way that goes far beyond what's required or expected of a music documentary. And though Wilson might seem like an unorthodox choice to shepherd a Swift production — her resume includes After Tiller, a documentary on the only four doctors in the country who perform late-term abortions, and The Departure, which examines Japan’s suicide epidemic — Wilson’s work resonated with the star, particularly at the time they met.
"She was at a moment of change and a pivotal chapter in her life, and she was struggling," Wilson tells Bustle of Swift's headspace when they met in 2018 and began filming Miss Americana. It was around the time the singer began to emerge from a period of self-imposed exile brought on by her now-infamous 2016 feud with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. "What we see happen over the course of the film is that she's taken the muzzle off her public presence, not only in her music, but in how she speaks and is out there as a woman in the world."
In Miss Americana, we get to spend 85 minutes with a Swift who not only takes the “muzzle off” how she speaks, but seems to be using a different lexicon entirely. This Swift cries openly, laments her "slappable face," and casually says "Yeah, f*ck that" to a potential trolling from President Donald Trump.
It's also a Taylor Swift who scarfs a burrito on camera with reckless abandon, stuffing chips in it for extra “crunch.” This might seem like a mundane moment, until the singer reveals that she’d never even had a burrito until age 26. In what’s become one of the widely publicized revelations from the documentary, Swift discusses her struggle with eating issues for the first time, saying the constant barrage of paparazzi photos of her splashed across the internet — not all of which were at what she considered to be the most flattering angles — triggered her to essentially "stop eating" in the 1989 era. Her weight plummeted. "That wasn't how my body was supposed to be," she says on screen.
"It's so powerful to hear," Wilson, who shot with an all-woman crew, tells Bustle of the scene. "I remember having seen images of her on the red carpet and never thinking she looked too skinny, because I am so used to seeing that standard of beauty. [Working on this film made me realize] there’s a veil over our eyes when we look at women's bodies."
The candor of the documentary surprised even Swift, who watched Miss Americana for the first time sitting next to Wilson.
"It was really emotional and intense [for her]," Wilson says. "Especially the section about body image. Her seeing the old images [of herself] — because this is all stuff we added in the editing room — and watching the media backlash section, it was so, so emotional. She was really moved."
Given Wilson's background in hard-hitting documentaries, it's unsurprising that she chose to focus on Swift's more politically charged battles, from the trauma of her 2017 sexual assault trial to her recent civic awakening. What is surprising is that Swift was happy to open up.
"There was really never a time where she said she wasn't game to go there. Never," Wilson says. That meant even delicately including Swift's long-term boyfriend, Joe Alwyn, whose relationship with the singer has been much discussed but rarely captured on camera. But although Alwyn is technically in Miss Americana, he appears only in abstract. He's a bodiless hand driving a car, a looming shadow on a frosty field, a baseball-capped hugger backstage, and, most crucially, the unseen amateur videographer filming Swift as she sits cross-legged on the floor playing "Call It What You Want" on acoustic guitar. At the "my baby's fit like a daydream" line, she stops singing and mouths "I love you" to him, appearing on the verge of tears. It's a beautifully pure moment that's almost uncomfortably personal. "We wanted to respect the privacy of her relationship," Wilson says, "but we also wanted to be able to touch on the importance of it in her life."
The juxtaposition of those candid moments alongside Swift’s musings on her public persona is what makes Miss Americana a complete portrait of a once impenetrable subject. Thanks to Wilson’s direction, we're privy to the all-too-real things that consume Swift: the imposter syndrome ("I'm only here because I work hard and I'm nice to people," she says at one point), the internalized misogyny, and her previously relentless need to seek others' approval.
"We have these expectations of celebrities, that they don't have any problems… But, of course, they have all of the same experiences that people like you and I have, it's just playing out on this massive international stage," Wilson says. "Girls are brought up being taught that other people's approval is of paramount importance to our self-worth. Those are voices we hear in our heads all the time, and I was surprised by how deeply relatable [Taylor’s experience] was."
The result is an unfiltered look at the pop star’s life that not only surprised Swift, but will shock audiences with its radical honesty. This isn’t a faux “real and raw” documentary that purports to peek behind the curtain of fame. In Wilson’s hands, Miss Americana succeeds at cracking the carefully curated veneer of one of pop culture’s most polarizing figures. And though it might not convert the most ardent of Swift detractors, it’s a compelling watch for fans and foes alike.