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Like most people, I know some of Taylor Swift’s songs by the mere fact of being alive, but it’s one thing to hear music and another to listen to it. The prime virtue of her concert film, “Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour”—shot last August, during three performances at SoFi Stadium, in Inglewood, California—is to concentrate one’s attention on her music, for two and three-quarter hours, as if in a listening booth. What it reveals about her artistry only heightens my appreciation for the substance and the imagination that goes into the making—indeed, the being—of this pop superstar. The concerts are megaspectacles, simultaneously intimate and colossal; Swift commands the stadium throughout, amid large-scale stage business. She’s often alone, sometimes joined by a handful of dancers, occasionally backed by a brigade of them, as huge video screens and stage sets serve as elaborate backdrops adorned by light shows and smoke effects. (As for the band, it’s kept far away, in a paddock of its own.) The film of this show puts her songwriting in the foreground, as if her music were a movie script, brought to dramatic life by her performance.
There are film directors who manage to turn big-budget studio movies into personal works, and, as I watched, I felt that Swift commandeers the mighty mechanism of celebrity in a similar way. The concept of the concert is autobiographical: Swift looks back at her career, album by album, each of which she ascribes to a different “era” in her life and each of which constitutes a segment of the show. She writes in the first person, with telling detail and candor, but also locks into a mythology of modern American young womanhood in a manner that lends narrative richness to her self-portraiture: young romance and boyfriends, friends and frenemies, school and neighborhood and family. The songs reflect a headlong desire to live the passions of the moment fully and deeply, an awareness of the barriers to this posed by the conventions of daily life, and a sense of pushing past these by sheer force of emotion toward hard-won self-knowledge. Swift is a melodramatist in the best sense, finding heroic grandeur in ordinary lives and circumstances, conceiving her experiences as a form of naturalistic legend in which her audience, of girls and young women, find their own experiences taken seriously, as they deserve to be. The “Eras” concept notwithstanding, Swift’s songs are curiously detached from their times: in expanding the specifics of her life to a quasi-universality, she filters out cultural specifics, as if inviting listeners to fill in the blanks with their personal set of references.
I found myself thinking of the romantic melodramas of Douglas Sirk, such as “Written on the Wind,” and this notion was reinforced by Swift’s performance of “the last great american dynasty,” a song from her album “folklore,” in which she tells the story of the late socialite and arts patron Rebekah Harkness (whose Rhode Island mansion Swift bought in 2013). While she sings the song—about a “middle-class divorcée” who marries the heir to an industrial fortune and becomes the focus of scandal—she’s accompanied not just by dancers but also by an actress who portrays Harkness clad in a glamorous fifties-style gown and elbow-length gloves. This number, a sort of impressionistic refraction of a glossy classic-era Hollywood romance, is the high point of the movie’s staging, though not its most inventive sequence. (There is more immediately eye-catching allure to the staging of some songs early on, in front of a huge, abstractly geometrical cutaway diorama-like house, reminiscent of Jerry Lewis’s “The Ladies Man”—and of the Hollywood Squares.)
The tour’s concept—the “eras” of Swift’s career—could easily seem self-aggrandizing, but it doesn’t come off this way because of a core of authentic experience that it delivers. Swift has grown up in public, and her fans’ fervent response to each new facet of her work corresponds to the major life changes (inner and outer) that accompany her artistic development. (Let no one who contemplates John Coltrane’s or Franz Schubert’s year-by-year musical self-transformations cast the first stone.) The movie shows Swift’s performance to be both artful and modest; she displays prodigious talent but not intimidating virtuosity. Though her dancing is adroit, she conveys far more with her theatrical repertoire of striding, gesturing, and glancing. Her singing is strong but not operatic, expressive but not flamboyant, perched at the border of a conversational or confessional tone. In effect, it’s a voice made to fit the lyrics—neither overwhelming nor underwhelming, an intensification and distillation of what’s extraordinary in ordinary life.
In short, the fascination of Swift’s performance is personal. That’s why the movie ultimately falls short of her aesthetic. Concert movies are rarely straightforward documentaries; rather, they generally build an image track to go along with a music track, somewhat like a music video, with the celebratory and promotional aspects to the fore. But this movie (directed by Sam Wrench) hardly adds another level of experience to the performances, because its visual composition, moment to moment, is burdened by convention and complacency. This doesn’t get in the way of the music, but it disregards the authenticity of Swift’s presence, the physical side of her performance.
What’s missing from the film is both a sense of proximity and a sense of time. “The Eras Tour” offers very few screen-filling closeups of Swift, and they go by in a flash. Indeed, the movie is almost entirely made up of very short shots, whether Swift is singing in motion while striding across the stage or in place when accompanying herself on guitar or piano, introducing songs with spoken commentary. The decision to film and edit the movie that way comes off as no mere concession to short attention spans and impatience with stasis. Short shots, chez Wrench or Sergei Eisenstein or Ridley Scott, serve one purpose: to insure that each image says exactly one thing, to reduce complexity to an instantly graspable unity. To turn such images into a complex whole requires virtuosic editing, but the editing of “The Eras Tour” doesn’t rise to the challenge, providing little variety or contrast from image to image.
The impersonality of the filming is diametrically antithetical to Swift’s artistry. The movie’s visual monotony—its uninspired angles, its sameness of tempo, its obstinate cutting away from action—renders the cinematic experience wearying, even as one can see that the live performances were invigorating. Among the fascinations of Swift’s stage presence is its apparent lack of spontaneity—the way the band is relegated to the sidelines, except in a few theatricalized moments in which guitarists briefly jam alongside her. But I say “apparent” because I don’t believe it: for all the careful rehearsal that makes the numbers come off like clockwork, Swift is very much in the moment. The movie, however, catches this fervor only in glints and flashes, as if in still frames, never in motion. A freer and more creative directorial approach—longer and more urgent closeups, say, or more patient and more curious wide shots—would reveal the spontaneity and the immediacy and humanity of Swift’s performances. Such a film would mirror her combination of concentration and abandon, thought and feeling, converging in the inner life of the artist at the center of the spectacle.
Instead, the movie is shot and edited like a commercial—and it’s obviously an effective one, because it provides an opportunity for a cohort of middle-aged film critics, myself included, to fawn over her work in a way that risks doing it an injustice. Like so many parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles, movie writers may coo, “She’s such a nice girl,” as if implicitly differentiating her from edgier rockers and rappers, or from more reckless celebrities. And she may well be a nice person, but her art involves much more than that, and she gives much more than that to her art. To get to the passion and the power of Taylor Swift would require a much better movie; the one she deserves would show not just how she shakes it off but how she shakes it up. ♦