Framing Britney Spears review: a searing paean to America’s sweetheart
In 2007, a year before Britney Spears’ very public breakdown – in which she shaved her head, lost custody of her two children and attacked paparazzi with an umbrella – she released a single, Gimme More. It was a hit, as everything she released tended to be. But there was a macabre bite to the song that few took seriously enough: in it, Britney, who’d been hastened along to superstardom by her parents, sang of the chokehold of fame – life at the ‘centre of attention’, with nothing but mouths all around.
This much-hyped documentary made by the New York Times tells Britney’s story, from her years at the Mickey Mouse club to today, in which she lives in a twilight of alleged captivity. The film starts and ends with the slightly creepy #FreeBritney movement, made up of overgrown fans who believe she should be allowed to live independently, and who pore over her every befuddling Instagram post for clues about her wellbeing. Since 2008, Britney’s financial affairs and medical treatment have been controlled by other people, particularly her father, Jamie, for reasons not fully in the public domain.
The documentary itself is functional: a blank slate for the Gospel of Britney; at times an unimaginative cuts job. But it works because the subject matter is so compelling and Britney such a charming, confusing figure. Her rise to fame may have felt abrupt to her – in an interview in the late nineties, she admitted she found her sudden celebrity status ‘weird’ – yet the documentary reminds us that she’d had her shoulder to the wheel since she was a kid, growing up with nothing much in an unremarkable town in the Bible belt.
Britney was associated with sex from the beginning of her career, from that first disturbing music video for …Baby one more time, in which she strutted and twirled alluringly in a school corridor, pigtails swinging, skirt only just decent. In this film, she emerges as a canny marketer of her own burgeoning sexuality – drenched hair, top cropped – but as a victim, too. Footage of a talent show when she was 10 shows her warbling away in an eerily mature voice until a lecherous TV presenter asks if she has a boyfriend – and if not, whether she’d consider him as a suitor. The guy looks about 60.
Worse questions were to come: another TV host a few years later asks Britney, now an established pop star, about her breasts. It wasn’t just oily men slinging her offensive humdingers: women in the media were ruthless too. In an interview in 2004, Diane Sawyer interrogated Britney about her relationship with Justin Timberlake, demanding what she’d done to break his heart. But Timberlake was no angel: he weaponised their breakup, using it to titillate one of his early music videos (Cry me a river), and when asked on air whether he’d ‘f**ked’ the famously virginal Britney, he guffawed a seeming affirmative. Bros will be bros.
The most infuriating parts of the film chart her relationship with the paparazzi, which has Diana overtones. Initially Britney twinkled for them, seeming to enjoy the reliability of the photographers’ devotion. But love gradually turned to hate. A revealing interview with a former pap shows that many who tormented her are still in denial about the responsibility they bear for her downfall. That blame needs to be shared around: we all marvelled at the ‘Bald Britney’ pictures; we all joined in as she was condemned for being a bad mother, for making poor choices in love, for getting tattoos and not wearing pants.
The film isn’t long – a little over an hour – but it’s a sobering reminder of the absolute trash young women were made to eat in the noughties, an era now remembered with bizarre nostalgia as a time when nothing much was happening, bar a war far away. For women like Britney – and Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton, whose heavily-photographed night out together was bitchily dubbed the ‘Bimbo summit’ by the New York Post – a private war was waging: for a life free from lechery, judgement and the predatory appetites of strangers all over the world.
Framing Britney Spears is available on-demand on Sky Documentaries and NOW TV.