Billie Eilish’s first documentary captures intimate spaces, but not intimate emotions

It’s impossible to feel at ease when listening to Billie Eilish’s music. It’s not that it’s hard to listen to — quite the opposite. It’s just that every song hurts in a slightly different way. On the one hand, she makes dark pop hits like “Bad Guy” that growl behind a cage of bass-y synths like she’s always on the edge of unleashing something meaner. Then she pivots to frail ballads that openly discuss struggles with mental health, and tell stories about deeply broken people surrounded by signs telling them they should be okay. There’s always something sinister lingering at the edges of a Billie Eilish song, and the catharsis of listening along is in the struggle of keeping it at bay — or indulging it in a way you think you can control. She writes love songs for people who grew up with monsters under their beds, and like it.

In the Apple TV Plus documentary Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry, a pop star who’s crafted an arresting and unsettling aesthetic — videos where cigarettes are stubbed out on her face, or where she weeps a toxic black fluid — lets viewers into the intimate and mundane world she builds it from. The film is remarkable in its plainness, largely comprising lo-fi footage of candid moments with Eilish and her family in the year leading up to the release of her debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, and her subsequent sweep of the 2020 Grammy Awards.

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In spite of its roughly chronological timeline, The World’s A Little Blurry is formless, less a slickly crafted come-up story and more a long compilation of vignettes, many of which don’t linger long enough. It’s like scrolling through someone’s smartphone to get a sense of what their year was like: some of the discoveries are amazing, and the rest leaves questions behind.

The movie is immersed in Eilish’s home and family: the cramped bedroom where she recorded most of When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go, the messy kitchen where she talked to her mother, the living room/office where she and her brother mastered every track and played them for others. Outside of Eilish herself, the two most prominent voices are the family members instrumental to her success: her brother Finneas, who writes many of her songs, and her mother, Maggie Baird.

Billie Eilish with her mother, Maggie Baird.
Billie Eilish with her mother, Maggie Baird
Photo: Apple

The World’s A Little Blurry explains very little about this. There’s one scene where Eilish plays a show in her hometown, but there’s no indication of what town that is, or what it means to her. (Perhaps because it’s in the Los Angeles area, where countless stars live.) It gives the documentary a placeless feeling, one that’s compounded when you notice there are no asides naming Eilish’s mother, or noting her career as an actor and writer. Similarly, apart from the many scenes of Billie and Finneas writing and performing together, there isn’t a whole lot of insight about their collaboration. In sidestepping much of her biography, the film portrays Eilish as an artist from anywhere, without pretension, and just like you. In this, she is like every pop star, in spite of her efforts to carve a very different path.

The result is a movie that does, in fact, blur the world around its pop-star subject. But that feeling is at odds with the film’s best parts, the ones that capture intimate emotions, rather than just intimate spaces. These moments can be light (a video of a 12-year-old Eilish absolutely smitten with Justin Bieber) heartbreaking (footage of Eilish in dance rehearsal, her first love before an injury made it impossible) and difficult (a conversation between Eilish and Baird concerning lyrics about self-harm in one of her songs). These moments are fleeting, but they make a strong impression, thanks to the vérité approach The World’s A Little Blurry takes throughout.

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Pop stars are in the business of image as much as music, crafting a narrative that makes them seem relatable to their fans. For artists and fans of Eilish’s generation — she’s 19, and the film depicts the months leading up to her 18th birthday — there’s little need to show that work, even as it’s carefully done in photo shoots and interviews. You get her or you don’t — and The World’s A Little Blurry is solely interested in talking to viewers who do.

Older generations tend to embrace nostalgic music because modern pop acts don’t mirror the tastes of their day. This is by design: pop music is always changing. There may never be another Britney Spears, and there shouldn’t be. At least not for Gen Z — they don’t need Britney Spears. They have Billie Eilish, a pop star born into a world that’s as confusing and distressing as theirs. At one point in The World’s A Little Blurry, Eilish’s mother rails against critics who call her daughter’s music depressing. “No!” she says, a little exasperated. “Kids are depressed!”

On one level, this is an old truth being spun as a new one: Teen angst has long been the fuel that powers pop superstars. But on another, there really is something unique to this moment about Eilish and her music. She — along with immediate predecessors like Charlie xcx and Lorde — are releasing bangers for a doomed generation, a young audience connected and savvy enough to know that they will live to foot the bill prior generations left behind. Unlike previous generations, more of their demons have names, and Eilish is happy to whisper them into her fans’ ears, and tell them that she sees them too.

Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry is now streaming on Apple TV Plus.