Britney vs Spears is a topical documentary that investigates the legal conservatorship around iconic pop icon, Britney Spears. Often referred to as the Princess of Pop, Spears became one of the world’s best-selling music artists through the late 1990s and early 2000s. Responsible for such earworms as …Baby One More Time and Oops!… I Did It Again she quickly became the best-selling teenage artist of all time. Following this up with ‘Britney’ and ‘In the Zone’, Spears released her most personal album ‘Blackout’, regarded as her best work. Around this time, Spears was placed in a conservatorship under her father’s guardianship with the help of a legal team following a string of highly publicised personal problems and relational difficulties.
The conservatorship was established in order to manage the pop star’s estate and her life in a personal capacity. Usually these kinds of legal protection measures are carried out in extreme situations where someone has a proven track record of being incapable of making sound decisions, particularly around their wealth. After a number of public incidents and a failed marriage to back up dancer Kevin Federline, Spears was deemed unfit to manage her own affairs and put under a conservatorship as a protective measure. While she was able to release new albums and even tour, enjoying the performance aspect of her residency for ‘Britney: Piece of Me’, she did so under strict rules governing her personal life. In 2019, the #FreeBritney movement was ignited after it came to light that she wanted to break free from the rigid court-ordered guardianship.
The Britney vs Spears documentary details the singer, songwriter and dancer’s career, reminding us why Britney Spears ultimately became America’s sweetheart. Investigating some of her messy relationships and incidents that provoked a tabloid frenzy, we begin to get a clearer picture of why a conservatorship even became a consideration. Conservatorships are meant to entrust a guardian for the vulnerable but can often become abusive, as suggested in the Rosamund Pike film, I Care A Lot.
Effectively giving her father Jaime, an iron clad “Daddy knows best” control over her life and estate, Britney vs Spears unpacks how this legal instruction has played out in Britney’s life. Interviewing ex-boyfriends, attorneys and tour friends on the fringe of the debacle, the documentary draws a picture of a songbird of a princess trapped in a castle by her evil father and his henchmen.
Unfortunately, the Britney vs Spears film isn’t able to interview the key players in the matter. This accentuates the fact that Spears is unable to speak freely or easily and underwrites her father’s aloof and powerful image but limits the true intimacy of the documentary. While it’s curious to get perspectives from people who she trusted, some of whom may have ironically led to the conservatorship, it does seem a bit stretched – even using one interviewee to reinforce the notion that some aspects are off limits to avoid legal proceedings. While breaking into her “compound” to get insider information and footage would have been extreme, it’s the kind of compelling stunt and genre tweak that would have added the necessary weight and infotainment value to this film.
Getting the documentary off the ground are prolific documentarian Erin Lee Carr and journalist Jenny Eliscu. Carr brings some credibility with At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal, How to Fix a Drug Scandal and I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter. An accomplished documentary filmmaker, she’s brought a number of powerful, raw and topical stories to light making her a good choice for Britney vs Spears. Eliscu’s personal interactions with Spears through interviews and Rolling Stone articles on the ‘Princess of Pop’ give the film an inside angle, actually drawing Eliscu into the documentary as an interviewee as well as co-investigator.
“Am I ready for my close-up?”
Having collated the documentary during the pandemic, you can understand the patchwork nature of this film – using video conference interviews, voiceovers, archive footage and filming the armchair investigators deliberate. This makes Britney vs Spears seem like a podcast that was adapted to film, drawing the filmmaker and journalist into the story. It’s an interesting documentary format but often comes across like filler to turn the story into a feature length film. Using visual effects to unblock important documents and add an All the President’s Men or Spotlight flavour helps but gets used with diminishing returns to the point of becoming a gimmick.
The rushed feel also doesn’t create a sense of consistency. Trying to necessitate the documentary, Carr adds bits and pieces to keep the film upbeat but it’s ultimately a scrapbook of media and information. The disordered sense keeps things interesting but chaotic, dropping enough breadcrumbs to keep you loosely engaged but lacking the focus and continuity to build a substantial case. Britney vs Spears is a disparate film project that comes across as forced from Eliscu’s emotional retelling to the attempts to get anyone with a degree of separation from Spears to offer evidence or personal testimony.
Some documentaries are simply pieced together using archive footage and while flashy, this one is underwhelming and discordant. As slick as they try to make the “investigation”, it comes across as a rush job. The story has played out in the media and while Britney vs Spears throws a rope over it with a comprehensive overview, it doesn’t offer much more insight than is already out there. It’s a good way to catch up on the Britney Spears conservatorship if this is the first you’re hearing about it. However, the slapdash feel and skirting around the edges makes it relatively tame as much as the bad language and special investigation vibes try to obfuscate. It will entertain the mildly curious and Britney fans, even if it covers old ground. It’s very existence should bolster Britney’s appeal to have the conservatorship lifted and incriminates “bystanders” who are now in the public eye.
The bottom line: Slapdash