Take back control: Charli XCX and Olivia Rodrigo’s films celebrate craft, not drama | a musician

MIn the documentary Driving Home 2 U by director Olivia Rodrigo, we see her turning up the camera in the shoebox-sized home studio of her producer Danielle Negro, recalling the date — March 2021 — and getting angry as he plays the first song they wrote together, a year ago. “And I still haven’t finished it!” She says about the relationship documented in the song. She seems less embarrassed of perpetual heartache than facing a less refined version of her songwriting — a craft that would have hone her to the biggest success of 2021.

Drivers’ License, Rodrigo’s debut single, was released on January 8, 2021 and broke Spotify’s record for most one-day streams of any non-Christmas song in four days. “My whole life was transformed in an instant,” Rodrigo says in the film, which seems to be there to help the 18-year-old absorb this rapid change as much as to entertain her fans. In addition to studio shots, it shows her cruising on the road from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles, the places where she wrote her subsequent debut album, Pictures, giving great performances in restaurants and deserts along the way. Oddly enough, she never confessed due to being in Utah: Rodrigo is a major character in the Disney TV series High School Musical, which is being filmed there. Although produced by The Walt Disney Company, the documentary completely omits the early part of Rodrigo’s career in two of her shows to frame her novel in terms of her growth as a songwriter.

Another unspoken detail in Rodrigo’s movie is the pandemic, which is only noticeable on the onscreen dates and in one scene where she and Negro wear masks to host two visiting executives near the end of the recording. Arguably, her development as a songwriter thrived because secluded work environments were the only viable way to compose music at the height of the Covid-19 crisis – and were conveniently closed off to label interference or the danger of a young voice crowding into a crowded room.

Olivia Rodrigo: Driving Home 2 U trailer

And the songwriter wasn’t the only one who took advantage of these extenuating circumstances: Driving Home 2 U offers an intriguing companion piece to Charli XCX’s Alone Together, another account of persevering creativity during the pandemic.

Within days of California imposing its first stay-at-home order in March 2020, Charlie, a recognized workaholic, collapses. She cries as she films herself on her phone: “I’m restless, I don’t do anything, I just want to be busy.” So she set herself the challenge of creating an album in five weeks, a process that would normally take a year, and she calls it How I Feel Now. On top of that, she intends to document every bit of it to allow fans to feel as involved as possible: right down to holding Zoom writing sessions where she switches between rhymebrain.com and their suggestions in the comments.

Charli’s fraught relationship with her brand, Atlantic, over the past decade has been well documented: Both parties have vacillated between whether she should be a mainstream pop star or a leading influencer creating alongside close collaborators like Sophie and AG Cook. . Unreconciled to this day (her new album Crash offers an introductory glimpse into the matter), presumably this flow of identity is what made Atlantic fund this pilot project: It’s entirely personal, so the stakes are lower.

Charli XCX performance in November 2021.
Charli XCX performance in November 2021. Photo: Eamonn McCormack/BFC/Getty

You wonder if the aisle that Charlie drew also helped make room for Rodrygo to work with only one producer in his studio on her debut. Not to mention also the process of trusting the brains of Beyoncé, homegrown pop music by Billie Eilish – as documented in her own film, The World’s a Little Blurry – and Ariana Grande claiming her claim, in 2018, to “direct music the way rappers do” – i.e. Fast and responsive. They were initially meant to be the EP’s song images, but Rodrigo told Geffen that she was determined to make an entire album to document that period of her life. Staying in touch with new emotions requires intimacy and pacing, not the kind of relentless commission-making process that can especially appeal to young pop acts who don’t trust their work.

As John Karamanica, a New York Times pop music critic, points out, all too often, top stars have begun to act like cult business, realizing that doing so helps them protect their vision and speak directly to an invested audience rather than risk their distinction by trying to please all comers. . : At the same time that Rodrigo and Charlie were making these recordings, Taylor Swift was recording a pair of surprise albums at home with a clique of left field collaborators (a process she also documented for Disney).

These films have very different stakes: Rodrigo is more about positioning the brand, setting the distance between who she is now and who she used to be: She talks, strikingly, about playing songs ‘in these places that meant so much to me and revisiting them with eyes’ Older,” as if looking back at her point and not after removal for about 18 months. The focus is on solidifying her as a songwriter rather than a “former Disney star,” focusing on the emotional consequences of heartbreak rather than on drama She has hinted indirectly that much of the media coverage of her escape has characterized him. It’s a fan-only fare, for those who already know the details.

Charli’s vérité is more vulnerable: will she set her five-week deadline? On top of that, it’s her first time dating her estranged boyfriend – in seven years, they haven’t spent more than 11 days together. It also coincides with her quest for a therapist to untangle the toxic relationship between her work and her self-esteem in a moment that couldn’t be more intense.

Yet the documentation offers artists, a decade later, a form of protection: the agency of women in the studio is often still undermined, and both films leave no doubt about Rodrigo and Charlie’s authorship and role as equal collaborators. We see Charli setting up equipment and learning how to self-produce as well as write rhythms transmitted by the likes of Cook and Palmistry; Rodrigo wrote to the crap that Negro had done on a whim and came up with one of the most beloved songs on her debut album. These seem to be fully empowering work environments, but having a camera in the studio also seems to be a prerequisite for the industry, providing a kind of safety – especially for young female artists working with older men – in a space that has historically been open to exploitation.

Of the two films, Alone Together is the best documentary. Rodrigo is tightly humorous, and the candid interviews undermine her pride in the messy emotional truth of her songs. The closing credits show pictures of her rocking with the female band supporting their “live” performances, and it’s hard not to want more of this kind of interaction: a group of girls hitting the road and bonding together, not Rodrigo’s lonely mansions in a falling landscape. Charli’s movie offers a broader time capsule than life under lockdown, especially as it focuses on the experiences of isolated LGBTQ+ fans who find inclusion in her project and fan community. But both are noticeably devoid of any drama beyond setting a creative deadline.

Since The New York Times released Framing Britney Spears in February 2021, a cottage industry of documentaries has emerged that “returns” icons of female (or untouchable) pop cultures from earlier eras. And pop stars often turn to their documentary cars when they need a payback story (especially when it’s run by Scooter Braun). Refreshingly, neither of these films delivered a result greater than: I made an album. Driving Home 2 U didn’t treat Rodrygo from her heartbreak: “I hope I won’t be too sad at the next record,” she told Negro when they finished recording. Nor does “Alone Together” rid Charlie of her work addiction: “Shall we do something else?!” She jokes to her boyfriend and manager when she’s done. Creativity alone is presented as a valid sign of personal development. Their victory lies in working within the limits they impose on themselves, not seeking to escape from anyone else’s limits.

Driving Home 2 U is now streaming on Disney+, Alone Together will hit theaters April 14 and be available on demand from April 18.

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