When Billie Eilish meets Justin Bieber — a person who she was so deeply obsessed with as a child that her mother was considering taking her to therapy to try and get over it — she pretty much freezes. The moment is captured in RJ Cutler’s astounding new documentary, and in many ways sums the whole thing up: here we have an artist who, mere hours ago, played one of the main stages at Coachella on the back of her debut album topping charts around the world, but when faced with her adolescent crush, shows all of the giddiness you’d expect from someone’s who’s only just turned 17.
That mad dichotomy of becoming one of planet’s biggest pop stars while still trying to endure all the tribulations of being a teenager, like dealing with a difficult boyfriend or taking your driving test, is explored at length in this film. Spread out across more than 140 minutes, it’s an unhurried, but entirely captivating collection of home-filmed footage, capturing some of Eilish’s most unguarded moments, and material taken from live concerts, proving just how talented she is as a performer.
Cutler’s film begins in 2018, when Eilish is well on her way to being huge but nowhere near the star she is today — the fact that he had the foresight to start filming such a phenomenon at this point is incredible, if not a tad fortuitous. But by beginning the journey then, and carrying it through until she’s a Grammy-winning megastar, he’s able to build up an astonishing level of trust between himself, Eilish, and her family, each of whom act as an ever-supportive entourage as she tours the world.
Billie Eilish and brother Finneas perform together on stage
That unbridled access leads to some golden moments. We’re taken inside the family home, and into the bedroom where Eilish and her songwriting supremo of a brother, Finneas, are crafting the songs that would eventually make their way onto that 2019 album. To see how their sibling bond endures through the film is exceptionally moving. Though the heaping pressures of songwriting to a deadline, and the onus on them to come up with a “hit”, can often make things fractious, they’re never too far away from breaking into fits of laughter over some goofy joke.
Finneas always fulfils his role as the unquestionably supportive older sibling, too. During one concert in New York, Eilish begins crying mid-song, seemingly because it reminds her of the boyfriend she’s broken up with just before the show. In front of thousands of onlookers, Finneas stops playing guitar beside her and lays a gentle hand on her back, and Eilish regains her composure. Try not to weep.
And while Eilish has never been one to avoid writing personally in her lyrics, this documentary paints by far the fullest portrait of her we’ve been given so far. She’s strong-willed and ardent, persevering against multiple on-tour injuries in order to give her fans a good show. But she’s also regularly afflicted by self-doubt, like when she worries that people don’t miss her while she’s away playing concerts, or that the internet will mock her voice on the James Bond theme song. Her struggles with mental health are also laid bare. Her Tourette’s flares up during especially stressful moments, and we’re also given a peek inside her notebook, which recounts some of her very darkest moments. As she admits at one point: “I didn’t think I would make it to this age.”
There are regular flurries of industry madness to contend with — painful meet-and-greets with nameless industry-types, boxes and boxes of clothes sent by fawning brands — but among it all, the focus stays squarely on the human side of things. We see Eilish being forced to switch on her smile when faced with a rabble of photographers, and we can feel her parents’ entirely understandable anxieties as they try to steer their teenage daughter through all the chaos. The documentary captures everything — it’s as much of a warning of the dangers of fame as it is a celebration of Eilish’s undoubted stardom.