Taylor Swift’s latest two albums, 2017’s Reputation and 2019’s Lover are both works that hold an important and transformative place in the artist’s personal narrative. The first is a deliberately messy statement that bitterly reckons with every harmful rumor and speculation surrounding her, while simultaneously trying to hold on to something genuine and untainted by her public status and persona. The second represents a bold act of finally letting go of all that once clouded her headspace; a sunny ode to all things she holds dearest to her heart.
Miss Americana, the newest entry in the canon of the American singer, is a documentary that captures this transformative period, intimately profiling her in-between those two releases. Filmmaker Lana Wilson (After Tiller, The Departure) follows Taylor’s life as she candidly shares her creative process and makes defining changes to her life and career, all while also providing the spectator with a general outlook on her ethos and what lead her to that point over the years, going from being teenage country singer-songwriter to a widely scrutinized pop megastar.
Wilson’s film is far from a conventional, streamlined succession of events in Swift’s life. What Miss Americana does best is exploring the changes in Taylor’s mindset, mostly through a clever thematic organization, interspersing original footage with scattered archival clips from throughout different periods in her career. One of the most inspired choices in the documentary is introducing us, right in the beginning, to what she has considered her moral code ever since she was a teen songwriter starting out: being perceived as a good person by others. This provides us with a framework through which Swift’s trajectory is seen throughout the film and poignantly informs her arc – that of a young woman going from mentally struggling with the crippling scrutiny of fame in industry circles and social media, to her having to hide from the public eye and search for strength and love within herself.
Despite what we may have assumed, though, it wasn’t all just Twitter gossip and celebrity drama in award shows that kept dragging Taylor down (events which appear addressed in the film, along with Taylor’s personal accounts of them). As the film progresses, portions of the documentary are spent over her experiences with an eating disorder, at a time when her mental health was deteriorating — perhaps the most revealing and sincere part of Miss Americana, but also a sexual harassment legal case in which she accused a radio host of groping her.
This latter issue proved to be essential for what ended up defining this new era for Taylor Swift, heading to the release of last year’s album, which Miss Americana captures in detail: her decision to finally end her silence on political issues, breaking industry norms. Ever since the trial, she’s decided to become increasingly outspoken about misogyny and gender inequality, as well as LGBTQ+ rights, expressing herself against Donald Trump and Tennessee Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn.
In gripping scenes towards the back-end of the film, where she finds the strength to face potential backlash from coming out against powerful political figures, we no longer see a broken-down, struggling Taylor Swift, but a reinvigorated, inspired one, with a new cause to champion using her influence in the public at large. While still concerned with external validation and how she’s seen, she manages to not dwell on the negatives and decide that she’ll now be defined in the eyes of the outside world by what she’s passionate about, be it her loved ones or her strong beliefs.
Just like the two previously mentioned albums, which both inform and expand what this film touches upon, Miss Americana may report on Taylor’s struggles, but it crucially captures her finding solace in who and what she loves after rough times, even finding a new mission statement for her influence and career in the process. Is this documentary an attempt at further changing the narrative around Swift’s public image? Maybe so, but it shouldn’t be discredited for it, and neither does it cheaply attempt to mask that. Again, Taylor never once hides how much the way she’s publicly perceived is important to her, on top of the fact that the film ultimately finds its power in its overarching themes of taking agency over one’s own life and the legacy one leaves behind as a person and artist. If it effectively changes the idea we have of Taylor Swift, it does to one that sees her as a woman daring to mature and make us know she’s here to try and use her voice for what she proudly believes in.
Providing an exclusive look on both her artistic and personal lives, Miss Americana is unmissable for Taylor Swift fans, but even for those who aren’t quite in tune with the singer, the documentary still provides a satisfying, motivational narrative. That of a young woman rediscovering herself and striving to be defined by a positive mark on the world.