‘Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry’ Exhaustively Charts the Young Star’s Rapid Ascent
It has been a standard cliché for decades now to describe certain music stars as “the voice of a generation.” But that statement might hold true for Billie Eilish. The pop singer’s music fully evokes the mood of Gen Z, capturing that particular melancholy and hyper sensitivity. To make the point on a personal level, director R.J. Cutler has now delivered a quite extensive chronicle of Eilish’s rise. “Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry” is a virtual nirvana for her legions of fans, clocking in at 2 hours and 20 minutes, with an intermission thrown in to take a breather. With its moments of visual exhilaration combined with a more simple autobiography, the documentary is insightful enough for the non-fan as well. That is, if you care and have the energy to carry on until the end credits.
In many ways Eilish personifies the modern dream of achieving fame and fortune in a digital world. In 2015, at the age of 13, she released a track on SoundCloud, “Ocean Eyes,” which she recorded with her brother Finneas. “The World’s a Little Blurry” is an immensely detailed chronicle of what followed when the song went viral and Eilish and Finneas began writing what would be her Grammy-winning debut. Through some home movies and Eilish’s own running commentary, we learn about her roots as a singer. Eilish’s parents, Maggie Baird and Patrick O’Connell, raised their children surrounded by music. Piano, guitar and singing lessons were part of daily life. Now at 17, Eilish, along with her brother Finneas, are finessing that milky, lively and melancholic sound that would make her famous worldwide. We sit there with them as they try to find the right lyric and key. Record label reps drop by to check out the material and Eilish also commences a touring schedule that begins to take a physical toll. A swirl of events soon envelop the young artist as she meets some of her heroes, deals with the heartbreak of a bad relationship, and processes her own insecurities as the world becomes her stage.
As a viewing experience, “The World’s a Little Blurry” is both interesting and exhausting. Cutler wants us to feel as if we are spending actual time with Eilish while giving enough space to showcasing the creative process. Some of its best moments focus on the endurance test of writing good music. The eventual album, “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?,” takes shape before our eyes in Finneas’ room at the O’Connell’s humble home in Los Angeles, which Eilish reveals is her favorite spot to write songs. Tracks like “All the Good Girls Go To Hell” and “Bad Guy” are tinkered with, fought over and sketched out before we hear them as grandiose, atmospheric numbers later on. Eilish opens her notebooks for the camera, revealing how she likes to “draw the song” at times. Never does the singer sit down for some kind of documentary-style interview. She never becomes a talking head. What we learn about her inner process comes from her own spontaneous chatter and interactions.
It’s easy to see why Eilish’s music has resonated so immediately and deeply, in particular with Gen Z listeners. She expresses the worries and anxieties of a 17-year-old with a vivacious honesty. In one swoop she feels the pressure of becoming an internet sensation and knowing millions now see her as a role model. Onstage she tells an audience in Europe, “I don’t know why you love me so much, I’m nobody.” If any traumas have created Eilish’s moody art we never get a hint of them, but her concerns are thus very relatable. She’s nervous about dancing in front of crowds because of an injury that forced her to leave dance lessons at the age of 12. Dreamy teenage notions about love are tested by her relationship to Q, a rapper boyfriend who never finds the time to be with Eilish right when she needs him. The guy won’t even answer the phone. And with so much hype built around her persona online, she and Finneas feel the immense pressure of making an album that will deliver.
These behind-the-scenes moments are combined with some visually exciting concert sequences of Eilish touring U.S. cities and then jetting off to Europe. And while some of the material could have been easily trimmed down, the editing never descends into pure music video mode. After the waves of fans holding iPhones at shows, Cutler captures different kinds of moments backstage, like Eilish getting frustrated because she’s being paraded like a prop for industry executives and then adoring teens who just want her picture and nothing more. There’s a moving moment where she finally gets to meet her hero, Justin Bieber, at Coachella and more awkward scenes of an overly-huggy, kissy Orlando Bloom squeezing Eilish and telling her, “I literally climb mountains listening to your music.” Bloom’s fiancé, pop star Katy Perry, seems sincere when she tells Eilish to call her if she ever needs someone to talk to considering the wild ride her life is about to take. Yet Bieber comes across throughout as the more genuine friend lending support.
There is a moment where Eilish’s mother, Maggie, comments that some commentators have called her daughter’s music “depressing.” She makes the intriguing point that the kids today are depressed, many with parents still shaken by the Great Recession. Not to mention they have been coming of age in a Trump-influenced world. In a way this helps explain not so much Eilish’s particular appeal, because she is highly intelligent and extremely talented, but why it’s the right moment for her sound. She’s mining that vein established earlier on by artists like Lorde and Lana Del Rey, composing music that is full of ambiance and introspection, while delivering a good dance beat or two. “The World’s a Little Blurry” somehow encompasses all this into a kind of video journal. For the Eilish fan it’s a worthy profile, for the unconverted it’s a generally fascinating portrait of a young artist at this moment in time.
“Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry” begins streaming Feb. 26 on Apple TV+.