Excepting the final 15 minutes, which acknowledge a lot of first accomplishments for its subject, Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry unexpectedly and rather inexplicably reminds of a eulogy for a career. That doesn’t make sense, of course, as the career of the eponymous singer-songwriter, who rose to fame thanks to her unique mix of Gothic pop stylings and electronic music, is only just beginning. We know this. Billie Eilish O’Connell came to prominence almost entirely within the last six years, and only just released her debut studio album in 2019. It shouldn’t compute, then, that these are the final stages of an era. In all likelihood, that isn’t the case.

It feels that way, though, with director RJ Cutler’s documentary account of Eilish co-writing the tracks featured on that album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, and touring twice to promote it eliciting a surprising admission from the pop star: She doesn’t want to record another album. She hates songwriting. She has a bad back and bad legs and seems to believe she isn’t talented enough to exist in these spheres of popularity without the umbrella of her brother, musical partner and producer extraordinaire Finneas O’Connell.

The success of the music documentary in general is in whether a subject is generous enough to open some pathway to the realities of his or her life and in whether a filmmaker can communicate something of worth beyond the biographical landmarks of that life. Over the course of nearly two and a half hours, Cutler manages both things here. Eilish is nothing if not completely unbound in the front of the camera, and the film conveys both that her stardom is now, in some record-breaking ways, a fixture in celebrity culture and that, perhaps, Eilish is ambivalent toward and distrustful about that fact.

We get the expected biographical beats, imparting some information we already know and enlightening some about stuff they might not have immediately remembered or been aware of at all. She debuted with “Ocean Eyes,” a song that came to define much about her style of music from that point onward, in 2015 and an EP, Don’t Smile at Me, in 2017. Her breakthrough arrived in March 2019 with the release of that debut full-length album and, a few months later, with the chart-topping hit (and, well, incessant earworm) “Bad Guy.” From there, her celebrity rose exponentially, culminating in four Grammy Awards in the same year – a rare feat only otherwise accomplished once in the history of the ceremony – and the much-coveted honor of co-writing and recording a theme song for a James Bond movie.

We see these things happen, but they are less important to Cutler than how his subject feels about all this – and Eilish, at the still-young age of 19, seems to feel utterly overwhelmed by it. Originally trained to be a dancer, she suffered a growth plate injury that put a stop to any of those dreams (and indeed, her routine at shows is less of a choreographed series of movements than a ritual to exorcise her frustration through motion). The attendant chiropractic strain has led to other injuries – sprained ankles, torn ligaments, an easily discombobulated spine – that threaten performances at any turn. It’s a lot to handle for anyone, let alone someone who is still, at the time of this writing, technically a teenager.

Her love of music came from multiple sources – parents (Maggie Baird and Patrick O’Connell, both actors) and a sibling who also loved the art form, a case of Tourette syndrome that was only held at bay by performing, and an unceasing childhood obsession with pop musician Justin Bieber that nearly inspired her parents to send her to therapy (there is a surprising amount about Bieber here, which gets an unexpectedly emotional payoff when they are able to collaborate on a remix of “Bad Guy”). She didn’t sing to become famous – indeed, she doesn’t write songs to make them hits, though it typically happens – but to get her feelings about her own issues in a song. She doesn’t even consider her fans to be fans but to be sympathetic extensions of her own personality.

We witness her talent – in brittle and whispery vocals that often seem on the verge of tears, in the frank and poetic lyrics that reflect her inner self, in the mercurial and often sad music videos (it is fitting that perhaps her finest song, “When the Party’s Over,” is a musical baseline for Cutler). We see her passion – in grandiose stage performances that seem to quieten every negative thing in her head, in those bizarre music videos (especially the ones she gets to direct), in the rapturous faces of the audience.

Obviously, there are the documentaries in which a popular and famous subject seems to be performing for the camera, but Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry, an expansive and intimate documentary of constantly surprising depth, suggests that such a thing is impossible in this case. Eilish is simply too untethered to a degree of fame that she is convinced she does not deserve – and too open about her insecurities regarding the attention she has garnered – for there to be any confusion about that point.

Unexpectedly and rather inexplicably reminds of a eulogy for a career. That shouldn’t compute.
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When the Party’s Over
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