This past week, Timehop apps across the world have been cheerfully notifying users that yes, it has been an entire year since they naively tweeted that they were about to spend “two weeks, maybe even a month” barricaded inside their apartments. (And they’re the lucky ones.) But when you’re a writer for The A.V. Club, you mark time in Kinja posts, not Facebook memories. That means that I’m pulling out a half-deflated balloon and a frostbitten slice of ice-cream cake for myself while writing this dispatch, because SXSW 2020 was the first major cultural event of last year that we covered virtually, and here we are doing it all over again.
It’s strange to be in your second year covering a festival you’ve never actually attended. There’s nothing to get wistful about, no intangibles to try to capture in words. Still, as someone who doesn’t do well in big crowds and has little patience for “brand activations,” “tech disruptors,” and the misappropriation of the word “guru,” that might be for the best. Anecdotal accounts I’ve heard from people who have attended SXSW in person paint two different pictures. One, a freewheeling citywide open house where music spills out onto the streets and screenings are tucked away in charmingly unexpected venues. The other, a cramped hell of aggressive marketing strategy and corporate jargon where you can’t walk 10 feet without someone trying to sell you on an app.
As always, the truth is presumably somewhere in between. But I wouldn’t know. I’m just here to talk about the online platform. On the freewheeling side, there’s a wealth of options for SXSW attendees to choose from online: virtual concerts, screenings, keynotes, comedy shows, VR experiences, and networking events. On the corporate one, every film I watched on opening day of the film festival was preceded by an ad exhorting viewers to attend a morning workout session sponsored by a Mountain Dew energy drink.
Both of these threads—a hybrid music/film festival, the blurry line between art and “content”—came together with SXSW 2021’s opening night film, Demi Lovato: Dancing With The Devil. A YouTube Originals docuseries presented in one 100-minute chunk, it chronicles pop star Demi Lovato’s 2018 drug overdose and its aftermath in Lovato’s own words, as well as those closest to her. On one level, it’s impressively forthright, as Lovato describes the heroin and crack cocaine addiction that almost killed her and the sexual trauma that has fueled her lifelong desire for escape. Asked if she’s sober now, Lovato hesitantly says she’s off of opiates forever, but she can’t make any promises beyond that—a statement that feels much more genuine than the expected “yes, and it’s amazing.”
But Dancing With The Devil is still inextricably entwined with the celebrity culture that pushed its subject to the edge. In one sequence, the doctor who treated Lovato’s overdose is asked if he knew who she was when she checked in to the hospital, and when he says no, an offscreen director tells him, “She has some bops.” Toward the end of the documentary, Lovato and two of her friends breathlessly tour the new house she bought during the 2020 quarantine, and the documentary ends with her cutting her hair as an act of reclamation—both sequences that seem airlifted in from a more typical puff piece. It’s an example of how to be honest without really being vulnerable, and while Lovato certainly has the right to her privacy, Dancing With The Devil does feel like a version of “raw” and “real” that’s been approved by a PR firm.
Another SXSW celebrity documentary, Introducing, Selma Blair, is by contrast an intensely vulnerable piece of work, perhaps because its subject isn’t seeking gigs she could lose. After a successful run in the late ’90s and ’00s that included high-profile roles in Cruel Intentions (1999), Legally Blonde (2001), and Hellboy (2004), Blair retreated from the spotlight after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2018. In the opening scenes of the documentary, she jokingly compares herself to Norma Desmond while donning a turban, emerald earrings, and heavy eye makeup for an on-camera interview in her Los Angeles home. Shortly thereafter, we see the physical effects of sensory overload on a person with MS, as Blair’s speech begins to slur and she struggles to pull her limbs in close to her torso in an attempt to self-soothe.
The fact that Blair’s personality comes through so strongly when she’s feeling relatively okay—she dramatically swoons on the floor, offers fashion advice for canes, and giggles as she poses with a tiny rubber hand—makes it even harder to watch the ensuing breakdown of the self in the face of overwhelming pain. Much of the documentary follows Blair as she travels to Chicago for a stem cell transplant that will either greatly ease her suffering or kill her, and all the insulating layers of fame are stripped away as she struggles to cope with the physical and psychological intensity of the procedure. We see her exhausted and resigned as she makes plans for her own funeral, undergoes days of intensive chemotherapy to break down her immune system so the treatment can build it anew, and hides her emotional anguish from her young son so he won’t remember her “like this.”
It’s serious, life-and-death stuff, and were it a little less intimate, it might feel exploitative. But Blair clearly trusts director Rachel Fleit, and repeatedly articulates her desire to serve as an advocate for people with disabilities while admitting that it took her a long time to even think of herself as “disabled.” There are a few elements that are addressed but not deeply explored—the high cost of the treatment and the controversy surrounding the clinic where it was conducted, for example, as well as Blair’s rocky relationship with her mother. But when it does break the skin, so to speak, Introducing, Selma Blair goes all the way down to the bone.
There’s no first-person perspective to be mined in Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché, a documentary The A.V. Club has followed from its launch on Kickstarter to its world premiere at SXSW Virtual. (Full disclosure: I contributed to the crowdfunding campaign.) Instead, mother-daughter relationships are at the center of the narrative, as Celeste Bell, the only child of late X-Ray Spex frontwoman and British punk icon Poly Styrene (a.k.a. Marianne Joan Elliott-Said), digs into “who she was before me.” She does so with the help of old punk flyers, archival interviews, and her mom’s diaries, which are narrated here by actor Ruth Negga. Going back to Poly’s childhood, we learn how her mixed-race heritage—Poly’s mother was a white English legal secretary, her father a Somali diplomat—influenced Poly’s outsider worldview, and how mixing with laddish contrarians like the Sex Pistols only enhanced her feelings of alienation. Only a few years after forming X-Ray Spex, she watched herself perform on Top Of The Pops on the communal TV in a psych ward, and quit music at the height of her fame. As Bell puts it, “Poly Styrene had to die so Marianne Elliott could survive.”
The portrait that emerges in the documentary is that of a sensitive, soft-spoken visionary who wore clashing neon colors and cheap plastic trinkets as a form of battle armor, who resisted the sexualization of women in the music industry, and whose apocalyptic visions of a world where identity and relationships are reduced to commodities feel eerily prophetic 40 years on. Most of the interview and performance footage in the first half will be familiar to fans—I personally encountered a lot of it researching a piece on X-Ray Spex back in 2018—and the narrative of X-Ray Spex’s rise and fall hits the same beats as Bell’s 2019 book, Dayglo! The Poly Styrene Story. The second half of the documentary is where Bell brings her own memories of both the good and the bad of her childhood into play, adding a personal touch that gives this admiring portrait a tenderness that contrasts with the aggressive dissonance of Poly’s music.
Which is not to say there’s “too much” out there about Poly Styrene. This true original has been a footnote in music history for far too long, and I Am A Cliché might be a revelation and an inspiration, particularly for women of color searching for role models in the blindingly white story of punk. It’s a complicated and intimidating legacy, and Bell admirably grapples with it. In fact, if there’s one thing all of these documentaries have in common, it’s the question of artistic legacy: maintaining it, destroying it, canonizing it, complicating it. For women in particular, allowing even a calculated glimpse behind the curtain of fame to see the unvarnished personality underneath has long been considered a potentially career-ending risk. To see three variations on the theme on one day feels, in its own small way, like progress.