Britney Spears has been the subject of obsessive media attention for the majority of her life. Her increasing unease with fame was never subtext. Whether people were busy decrying Spears as a threat to feminism or heralding her as the savior of pop, her own discomfort with the celebrity aspect of being a performer was constant.
It was obvious for years: in the music videos and lyrics of songs like “Lucky,” “Everytime,” and “Piece Of Me”; in her (justifiably) contentious relationship with gossip bloggers and the paparazzi; in her aversion to mainstream media profiles later in her career. As Spears has endured a 13-year personal and financial conservatorship controlled by her father, Jamie, that has stripped her of an array of rights, while she’s been worked to the bone, another question has emerged: Was Spears being kept away from the public eye by the people controlling her life, rather than avoiding it herself?
That central question and many others about Spears’ career, her meaning as a pop star and an American symbol, the loopholes of conservatorships and the complicity of the U.S. judicial system, and the oldest corruptor of all, money, have been the shared focus of our current age of dueling documentaries about Spears. The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears hit like a lightning bolt on FX on Hulu in February, sparking a new wave of discourse about the pop icon and attracting fresh eyes to her legal woes.
Half a year later, and in the span of the same week in September, FX released its follow-up, Controlling Britney Spears, while Netflix offered its own Britney Vs Spears. The artist doesn’t seem too pleased by the trend (“They criticize the media and then do the same thing... ????? Damn,” she wrote, along with a string of thinking-face emoji, on Instagram in May). But perhaps there’s some bleak irony to the fact that even when she doesn’t want to be, Britney remains good business.
Practically every production in this current wave of documentaries about Spears’ life follows a certain formula: Trace her phenomenal rise, remind viewers of her slew of hits and her cultural omnipresence, revisit what was considered her “fall from grace” in 2006 and 2007, and then explain the conservatorship process and how it has controlled the pop star’s life since her family and the court system essentially tricked her into one in 2008. (How a conservatorship strips rights from an individual regarding their health care, finances, and other decision-making is tantamount to “a civil death,” explains lawyer Tony Chicotel in Britney Vs Spears.)
Both Controlling Britney Spears and Britney Vs Spears follow this model, digging into court records and documents; sharing material leaked to the producers; referencing Spears’ 2008 documentary For The Record, in which she says of the conservatorship, “It’s bad … I’m sad”; and assembling a group of former Spears insiders to speak on the record.
With so many similarities between Controlling Britney Spears and Britney Vs Spears, the differences are found in that good ol’ journalistic tension between objectivity and subjectivity. Controlling Britney Spears noticeably benefits from the fact that its predecessor, Framing Britney Spears, helped to mold this cultural conservation, and as a collaboration with The New York Times, its approach is focused on breaking news.
Controlling Britney Spears begins with Spears’ June 23 court testimony, the first time she’s spoken publicly and at length about her desire to end the conservatorship and remove her father as conservator. Then it moves backward and forward in time, analyzing each twist and turn in the legal saga. The effect is one of totality, with director Samantha Stark and New York Times journalist Liz Day aiming a critical eye at everyone involved: all the agents of the judicial, legal, and capitalist systems that made money off Spears in these years. The goal here is justice for Spears, whatever that may be. Controlling Britney Spears is the more tactical documentary, the one more interested in making a grander point about how if this could happen to Britney Spears, it could happen to anyone.
In comparison, Britney Vs Spears is slightly rougher around the edges. Director Erin Lee Carr and radio host and writer Jenny Eliscu seem a bit like they’re playing catch-up. Britney Vs Spears jams a fair amount into its 93-minute runtime, and does more recounting of the conservatorship than analysis. Viewers of Framing Britney Spears will sense some déjà vu. But while Carr and Eliscu both explicitly note that they weren’t fans of Spears’ music, they also approach the question of what happened to Spears more personally than either Framing or Controlling.
That’s not to say that Britney Vs Spears isn’t a professional production, but it doesn’t uphold the same rigorous—even detached—atmosphere of The New York Times Presents documentaries, and that intimacy works to its benefit.
Eliscu worked with Spears twice on Rolling Stone cover stories and reveals her own involvement in Spears’ battle against the conservatorship. Coupled with the interviews Carr conducts, including with Spears’ former manager Sam Lutfi and her ex-boyfriend Adnan Ghalib, Britney Vs Spears cultivates an overall apologetic affect. When Carr says of Jamie’s control over Britney’s life, “That’s the patriarchy,” the moment is presented with complete sincerity.
Controlling Britney Spears is the slicker documentary, with a wider grasp of the players at the heart of the saga and their individual contributions to her agony. Its thoroughness makes it a solid companion piece to Ronan Farrow and Jia Tolentino’s rigorously reported New Yorker article on Britney’s conservatorship. Controlling Britney Spears is clearly engineered to allow for a third installment down the line.
But people just wading into all this might be better served by the compressed narrative of Britney Vs Spears, which opens with the pop star onstage, grinning widely in response to thousands of cheering fans and closes with a lengthy excerpt of the court statement she made in June. Controlling Britney Spears is about recognizing who took Spears’ voice and holding them accountable, which makes for an enthralling watch that cultivates a desire for vengeance. Britney Vs Spears, despite being less sprawling, displays power of its own in its deliberate choices to not only refrain from including infamous photos and video of Spears from 2006 to 2007 (her shaved head, the umbrella attack), but also to give Spears her voice back.
Controlling Britney Spears and Britney Vs Spears both operate in the shadow of a major moment in Spears’ battle against the personal and financial conservatorships held by her father: the public court hearing on June 23, which she herself had requested. Calling into court, Spears shared her feelings about the conservatorship. In the recording, she is direct, clear, and discernibly angry about the control that the legal system gave her father over her in 2008, and has allowed him to retain for a third of her life.
The audio of that phone call is a shared reference point for both Controlling Britney Spears and Britney Vs Spears, and both go back to it over and over. In fact, they often pull the same quotes: “I’m not happy”; “I cry every day”; “I wasn’t good, I was great”; and, of her father’s feelings about her agony, “My dad was all for it. He loved every minute of it.” Neither Britney nor her father spoke to either documentary crew directly, and so that court testimony is the sole recent audio each production can use.
Its rawness has undeniable power, but Controlling Britney Spears and Britney Vs Spears contextualize it differently—and with varying efficacy, which reflects the documentaries’ different methodologies. In Controlling Britney Spears, Stark and Day pick up where Framing Britney Spears left off. In the first documentary, Stark compiled years of performance and rehearsal footage, media and TV appearances, and interviews with Spears to portray her as the victim of a cruel media apparatus and linchpin in cultural conversations about femininity and the patriarchy.
Framing Britney Spears wondered how much Spears was in control of her own image and suggested that it was Spears’ power—as a once-in-a-lifetime star and a sex symbol—that turned the media against her and that created the conditions for her family to wrest control of her life. That approach had some detractors (like Tavi Gevinson), but with that framework already established, Controlling Britney Spears dives into the muck and ugliness of how Spears was treated and the resulting conservatorship.
The follow-up is primarily about weaving together the disparate elements of the conservatorship that are to blame. Stark and Day allow their on-the-record, on-camera sources to relay their experiences—and point fingers. While Framing Britney Spears was shaped by the #FreeBritney movement and the narrative that Britney’s fans created about how her Instagram posts were a cry for help, Controlling Britney Spears is about criticizing the people who might have inspired that response on social media. The documentary is embedded with #FreeBritney protestors outside the courthouse as they cheer on Britney’s testimony and then transitions into interviews. Britney’s former assistant Felicia Culotta is a familiar face (she pops up in Britney Vs Spears, too), and although she doesn’t share much in either documentary, her closeness to Britney lends an air of authority.
The bombshells in Controlling Britney Spears come from elsewhere. “People have a way of disappearing” once they got too close to Spears, says Circus tour manager Dan George. Tish Yates, Britney’s head of wardrobe from 2008 to 2010 and 2013 to 2018, recounts smuggling Spears a pair of Skechers because her management wouldn’t allow the minuscule expense, and describes the singer as overworked, exhausted, and forcibly isolated while on tour. “This is a human life that’s been tortured,” Yates says. That statement is backed up by Alex Vlasov, a former employee of Black Box Security, Spears’ security team hired by her father.
Vlasov shares numerous stories about how Black Box president Edan Yemini conspired with Jamie, Spears’ family spokesperson Lou Taylor, and Tri Star Sports and Entertainment executive Robin Greenhill to spy on Spears. Most damning are Vlasov’s accusations—backed up by emails, text messages, and other documents—that Black Box planted recording devices in Spears’ bedroom and monitored all activity on her cellphone, including communications with her court-appointed lawyer Samuel Ingham III. Vlasov insists that he stayed with Black Box for so long because Yemini convinced him that the conservatorship was for Spears’ own good because “she’s just like a child.”
Does anyone still believe that the conservatorship’s enactors are so pure-hearted? Not really. (And finally, the courts agree—on September 29, Judge Brenda Penny suspended Jamie from the conservatorship at Spears’ request.) Controlling Britney Spears coolly disagrees with the conservatorship party line by referencing all the times over the years that Spears has pushed back against the people controlling her and pleaded for someone to listen. “The more money Britney brings in, the more money everyone makes,” Day says. This insight is crystallized when, in a particularly infuriating court transcript, former conservatorship Judge Reva Goetz asks, “How are her sales in Las Vegas?” (Also damning for Goetz: She dismisses Spears’ concerns about her father’s drinking and her request for him to be randomly drug tested with, “Who is she to be demanding that of anybody?”)
That is, for lack of a better term, the juicy stuff, and Britney Vs Spears has its own insights along those lines. By focusing more specifically on the people in Spears’ orbit when the conservatorship was enacted, the documentary gives those individuals the opportunity to reclaim their reputation. Lutfi, Spears’ former manager, practically smirks when Carr brings up the claims that Britney’s mother, Lynne, made about him drugging her.
“You call the police, you call the FBI. You don’t call TMZ,” Lutfi says. His observation that Spears’ family had their own agenda is echoed by Spears’ ex, paparazzi photographer Ghalib. “We didn’t have that balance. There was this multimillionaire and me.… There was this white girl, and there was me,” says Ghalib.
Instead of accepting the long-held assumptions that Lutfi and Ghalib were villains, Britney Vs Spears introduces a new one in the form of geriatric-psychiatrist Dr. J. Edward Spar, who the documentary suggests is the doctor that signed off on a medical examination that said Spears had dementia—a key element of placing her under conservatorship. The way that Spar backtracks over his own statements is shocking and disquieting, in particular his commentary on Spears’ condition and then his statement, “Wait, I’m not going to acknowledge that I’ve ever met her.”
It’s not as revelatory as the ending of The Jinx, but it’s still pretty grim. Interestingly, unlike either FX on Hulu documentary, Britney Vs Spears does make space to question the #FreeBritney movement through an interview with lawyer Mark Vincent Kaplan, who defended Spears’ ex-husband, Kevin Federline, in their custody hearings. “It’s not as if Los Angeles is some type of fascist gulag,” Kaplan says of #FreeBritney activists analyzing her social media.
Both Controlling Britney Spears and Britney Vs Spears craft their own webs of influence and corruption around Spears, using court documents, text messages, handwritten letters, voicemails, concert and rehearsal footage, and interviews. The environments of intimidation and fear they each build are similar, and many of the people they feature are the same. But the comprehensiveness of Controlling Britney Spears is equaled by the empathy of Britney Vs. Spears, and the humane touch of the latter might be what this story needs to remind us of the person at its center. And with Jamie removed, new chapters in both Spears’ life, and in the inevitable follow-up documentaries about her saga, await.
The New York Times Presents: Controlling Britney Spears is streaming on Hulu as of September 24. Britney vs Spears is streaming on Netflix as of September 28.