The Battle for Britney: Disappointing and dated
Helen Archer | On 09, May 2021
Britney Spears is big news right now, thanks in no small part to the flurry of documentaries examining the conservatorship she has been under for more than a decade. February saw the release of the New York Times’ Framing Britney Spears, a Netflix programme is currently in development and Britney is rumoured to be making her own documentary. The BBC’s frankly rather underwhelming take on the matter is fronted by BAFTA-winning journalist Mobeen Azhar.
For those not in the know, a brief summary. Following her very public breakdown in 2007, Britney was placed under a conservatorship, which remains in place to this day. While some – including Perez Hilton, who is interviewed here – say that the conservatorship is for Britney’s protection, saving not only her fortune but perhaps her life, many fans feel it is exploitation, and that it limits her freedom to a remarkable extent. In theory, she has no control of her finances or her day-to-day life. This has spawned the #FreeBritney movement, which seeks to support the pop star. Some fans pore over her Instagram posts to decode hidden messages, while others stand outside courtroom with placards protesting against conservatorships. In all this, Britney has had very little public input, although following the release of the BBC’s programme, she posted on Instagram: “These documentaries are so hypocritical … they criticize the media and then do the same thing.”
While Framing Britney Spears had the advantage of being the first of the films to be released, it still felt like an instant classic – the definitive Britney film. The BBC documentary is another story altogether. Azhar flies out to Los Angeles, where he had access to a hearing in December 2020 – though it would seem, from the rest of the hour-long content, that’s where much of his access stopped. In lieu of any input from those who actually know anything, Azhar instead speaks to a roster of quite random interviewees, in an effort to find out what Britney wants and needs.
The film is choppy, with very little flow. In the run-up to the hearing, Azhar finds time to visit Kentwood, Louisiana, where Britney grew up, and chats to people in her hometown. They all say how nice and down-to-earth she is, but this feels like it could have been an interlude in a documentary made about her 20 years ago. Similarly, the appearance of Perez Hilton harks back to a time when he was in any way relevant. Now ashamed of his reporting of Britney’s breakdown, he once again apologises for his part in the media storm surrounding her. A paparazzo who covered that period in her life, and who considers himself as a documentarian of history, is also interviewed. He claims Britney was a willing participant in the publicising of that troubled period of her life. On her Instagram, Britney put paid to his assertions, writing “no paparazzi guy… I didn’t want you and your crew following me around”.
Celebrity choreographer Brian Friedman, who danced with Britney in her early years, talks about the hardcore fans who would send death threats back in the day, making his life a misery. This is, presumably, to add some sort of balance to the interviews with Britney superfans and the founders of the #FreeBritney movement, who appear visibly emotional as they describe their dedication to the singer, and their determination to help her get out of the trap they feel she is in. But again, Friedman is talking about ancient history.
Billy Brasfield, formerly a make-up artist for Britney and now backing the #FreeBritney movement, claims in the programme that he is still close to the star and that she has full knowledge of the content of his interviews. Again, Britney’s Instagram tells a different story, as she has posted: “I don’t actually talk to Billy B AT ALL so I’m honestly very confused.” That Instagram message has been questioned by fans, who claim she is not in control of her social media, and that someone else is updating it. Such conspiracy theories somewhat undermine their message, muddying the already opaque waters.
What is annoying about this documentary, though, is its superficiality. It doesn’t take much to comprehend that Britney is one of a long line of female stars to be controlled and exploited by suits behind the scenes, their mental health denigrated in an effort to undermine them and take hold of their fortune. But context and analysis has been shunted in favour of interviews with an assortment of some of the very people who have made money from exploiting the star for their own gain. It is deeply disappointing that such a rich subject has been given such lazy treatment, and has ultimately fallen into the very trap it should be critiquing. On 23rd June, Britney is due to address the court directly, and there will hopefully be more clarity regarding her feelings about the conservatorship. In the meantime, you can’t help but feel that this documentary will date very badly, very quickly.
The Battle for Britney is available on BBC iPlayer until April 2022