Of course it begins with a kitten. Miss Americana, the manufactured yet still revealing new documentary about superstar Taylor Swift, starts with the multiplatinum seller sitting at the piano as a white kitten with a black mask-like eye pattern (like an adorable little thief?) crawls over the keys in random accompaniment. Fans might think the animal a sign of vulnerability, while detractors might suggest it’s the cuddly familiar of a powerful force in contemporary music? Director Lana Wilson (The Departure), who may have been encouraged to maintain a certain persona for the pop star, makes some fascinating cinematic juxtapositions that promise a critique of fame and the pop machine. Yet the film finally ends up being an ordinary soapbox.

In one telling present-day sequence, Swift looks over the diary she kept as a 13-year-old, explaining that she wrote it with a glass quill and shaking her head at that detail, seemingly rolling her eyes at her childhood affectation. Yet immediately after she says, “My entire moral code, as a kid and now, is a need to be thought of as good,” we return to the kitten on the keyboard, whom she’s chiding as it wanders into potential kitten trouble on the piano’s strings. “That’s dangerous,” Swift warns, “That’s not—that’s dangerous for you.” With the curious feline crawling into the instrument’s guts, it’s as if she’s forbidding it to dig deeper into her own.

Much like Swift’s music, the film, barely two minutes in, seems built on highly contrived fluff, but, at least for a few minutes, is densely layered. Clips of the young Swift singing the National Anthem or backed by and even wearing variations on the American flag, are steeped in the symbolism behind the Lover track “Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince” that gives the documentary its title. Miss Americana invokes the beauty pageant, of course, but shifts to a musical subgenre that suggests a back-to-roots mentality; yet Swift must be well aware that her increasingly pop-friendly albums and big-budget concert productions are as far from down-home as humanly possible.

Charting Swift’s career, the film moves from the meteoric rise of a then-teenager Swift to one very public tipping point: the 2009 VMA awards, when the veteran Kanye West took the mic from the 17-year-old winner to grab the spotlight from the up-and-comer. It takes some humility (detractors may call it navel-gazing or self-centeredness) to include footage from a 2016 Kanye West concerts of his fans chanting, “Fuck Taylor Swift!” Naysayers may suggest Swift does this so she can play the victim; in fact, a talk-show host is seen expressing this very skepticism. To take a cue from a piece of ‘70s pop culture Americana, it’s as if Laura on “Little House on the Prairie” suddenly transformed into Nellie. The more popular Swift became, the stronger the backlash. Is it candor to demonstrate the popular downturn so vividly, or is it ultimately self-serving? The answer may be a little of both.

The conflict late in the film centers on the decision whether or not to take a partisan stand in the midterm elections. Her family is torn about it; her father encourages her, like most country musicians before her, to stay out of it. The decision seems predictable, but in an age when celebrity pontificating is a fact of life, this doesn’t particularly distinguish the artist. Perhaps what does distinguish Swift is the scrutiny paid to her personal life and professional demeanor. She’s just turned 30, and potentially has a long career ahead of her. Can she sustain a career into maturity? It’s too soon to say, but she clearly knows how to manage her persona.

While she seems to constantly need approval, it’s a hunger that not even stadiums full of fans may be able to satiate. If her influence is less than she hoped, politically or artistically, her answer is simply to try harder: make a better album next time. Miss Americana becomes less interesting when it sheds the layers that makes its early images so promising. One wonders how she’ll navigate future social media campaigns. Her songs will continue to examine her own life in a public forum, and do it with a drive and pop flair, as long as she stays hungry for the spotlight. That doesn’t seem likely to change; so there’s bound to be another attempt down the line, and if she manages to break out of the self-examination, or do something new with it, the resulting music and the movie might be fascinating, far better than this and Cats combined.

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