The FX docuseries The New York Times Presents takes a celebrity turn on the installment “Framing Britney Spears.” But this is no tabloid exposé, even as the gossip rags and paparazzi become inadvertently complicit. The series provides consistently dedicated longform journalism as a matter of course. Their beat is varied. It’s covered front line workers, booted a hacking network, and chased a killer.
“Framing Britney Spears” doesn’t present a homicide case, though legal minds might argue a life has been taken away. It is a true crime documentary, but the truth hasn’t been determined, and the crime is hard to define. There is a fiduciary element, and questionable mental health is a contributory factor. It is also a missing person’s case where the exact location of the victim-at-large is known. Well known and splashed across newsfeeds at a moment’s notice if there’s even a hint of a move. That’s part of the problem.
“Framing Britney” does a very good job of breaking down the incredibly confusing legal details. Since what has been called a very public breakdown in 2008, Spears has been under her father Jamie Spears’ conservatorship. This is also known as a guardianship and it is normally limited to people with diminished capacity who might not be capable of making decisions. Spears entered the conservatorship at age 26. She acknowledged it was necessary when it began, but at 39, wants the conditions changed.
The court documents call Britney a “high-functioning conservatee” who is still raking in the bucks. James Spears’ conservatorship may have been legally dubious, but it has been profitable, bringing the star from the depths of a bottomless spending spree to a net worth of well over $60 million. The conservatorship has done so well, even James’ initial co-guardian, the aptly named Andrew Wallet, wants a raise, and The New York Times Presents wants to know why. Britney’s attorney Samuel D. Ingham III tries to explain as much as he can, but he’s only privy to so much information. The documentary makes it seem Spears’ case is too profitable to get resolved. It’s not about health, but money. Even the Los Angeles Superior Court Judge is named Brenda Penny.
The subtext of the documentary has even saturated Spears’ song titles. “Work Bitch,” “I’m a Slave 4U,” “Overprotected,” all describe the neverland Britney inhabits, and “Framing Britney Spears” lets you know it without stating it explicitly. Baby, she’s been hit more than one too many times. And it drives her crazy. It drives her fans mad as well. They’re only angry but they’ve been labeled insane by the opposition. Britney’s father dismisses them as “conspiracy theorists.” Some members of the #FreeBritney movement say they feel so gaslighted they sometimes doubt what they know. But they know, and are very good at getting the inside scoop.
One sequence recounts an anonymous voicemail message to the fan-produced podcast “Britney’s Gram.” It is obviously big news, and the fans who produce it do the right thing. They make all the right disclaimers. They do their due diligence, vetting as much as possible, cross-checking as much information as they can get. The self-appointed Britney-fan-journalists are organized, intelligent, and so well-informed Britney herself thanks them on record highlighting the word. They go to the hearings, take minutes and share them via google doc, insiders confess to them. They are a serious media concern, and this writer hopes when they achieve this goal, they don’t give up on their network and what it can do.
The fan/journalists dig through every conservatorship document available to the public. This may be part of a New York Times series, but they are star stringers, and director Samantha Stark is absolutely justified in treating them this way, albeit with tight editorial restrictions.
This may be the most innovative aspect of the episode. New York Times journalists Jason Stallman, Sam Dolnick, and Stephanie Preiss teamed with Left/Right’s Ken Druckerman, Banks Tarver, and Mary Robertson on this project. They enthusiastically analyze and incorporate the information they get from the grassroots fan-based press which sparked The Free Britney movement. Over the past few years, cellphone-recorded incidents and social media feeds have been changing the way news is gathered, providing first-hand accounts of harassment, protests and aggravated law enforcement tactics. The New York Times Presents produces one of the best mixes of the evolving media landscape. It is a transitional program, adhering to traditional journalistic values while vetting the upstart alternative media.
“Framing Britney Spears” watches Spears’ followers as they scrutinize the star’s Instagram posts. Since disappearing from public view, these are the only glimpses into the megastar’s life, and she appears to be packing as much into the short clips as she can. Almost every post artfully weaves a mysterious clue, but even the fans admit, anyone can read anything into all of them. Spears’ lyrics have come under similar microscopes leading to vast and dark conspiracies. Britney could be singing about watching The Sixth Sense in “Girl in the Mirror.” The lyrics to “911” could be interpreted as a plea from a monarch-programmed sex-kitten. She never even officially released her response to a famous ex-boyfriend’s teary-eyed breakup song.
The documentary includes insightful interviews, especially with Felicia Culotta, who was with Spears from the very beginning of her career. She is to Britney what Mal Evans was to the Beatles, the one who did the day to day work. She was hand-picked by Britney’s mother and James Spears’ ex-wife Lynne Spears. Culotta stood with Britney for Times Square selfies on the first trip to New York. An early talent manager talks about how dedicated Britney was to her musical and performance studies, and the documentary shows stills of the singer on different instruments. We see the rise of a female pop phenomenon in the age of the boy band.
This is where “Framing Britney Spears” earns its title. The directors indirectly infer not only has Spears been set up for some kind of blame, the entire picture is off-center. Sure, the #FreeBritney movement has become a cause célèbre, and the documentary shows Cher, Miley Cyrus, and others hoisting flags during concerts. But when Britney shaved her head and told people to stop touching her, she was a late-night talk show joke regurgitated on daytime game shows.
The documentary highlights how, from the moment Britney took off Mouseketeer ears and got ground through the American pop-star machine, she was a target and an easy score. “Her rise was a global phenomenon,” the FX advance press promised. “Her downfall was a cruel national sport.” One segment of the documentary shows a chorus line of well-known names making sport of Spears. The series shows Justin Timberlake treating radio interviews like locker rooms, and Us Weekly heading the cheerleading squad.
The piece sheds a completely different light on Spears’ public breakdown in 2007 and 2008. While an interview with former MTV VJ Dave Holmes reveals how professional, friendly and focused she was on set, one the paparazzi squad talks about ducking the famous umbrella attack. Even in retrospect, he doesn’t get it. He still doesn’t think his actions, chasing the pop singer around in a car while she tended intricate family business, had anything to do with her beating on his car door with an umbrella in the middle of the night. He acknowledges Britney had told him to lay off, but the cameraman assumed the requests applied to specific moments, not forever. It makes it seem Britney had to advise the paparazzi on a case-by-case photo op basis. Who does that?
One of the highlights of the documentary comes at a big announcement of her second Las Vegas residency in early 2019. Britney, who did her share of comedy acting on Saturday Night Live, does a perfectly broad impression of a Mel Brooks late-night Tonight Show appearance. She walks onto the stage and keeps walking. It is art. It is a major statement from the fabricated pop star.
One of the sad truths the documentary inadvertently points out is a series of artistic “what might have been” scenarios. Known only as a singer and dancer, we’ve never gotten to know the singer as a musician, because everyone cared about the gossip. People dismiss Britney as a dance pop artist without thinking that dance pop is an art. In spite of its intentionally static rhythms, it is often more intricate musically than rock. Britney, the artist, never stopped looking to expand the sounds. She was one of the pioneers of dubstep, taking it from the London club scene to the tops of all international charts. The documentary shows a series of unrelentingly harrowing questions about dating, boys, and the dangers of her young feminine sexuality. At one point Britney has to respond on camera to the news that some mother in the Bible Belt wants to shoot her dead. “I’m nobody’s babysitter,” the singer mouths, ad-libbing like the young professional she is, before cameras linger a little too long.
Ultimately, The New York Times Presents gives us a horror documentary, as scary and unfathomable as The Blair Witch Project, only more chilling because it is not fiction. Even Stephen King veers from this kind of harrowing suspense. It’s a pop-up, and you have to wait for it. They don’t reveal it until the end credits, though we’ve known it from the beginning. As the producers are thanking their contributors, they mention they reached out to Britney Spears herself. She never responded. They don’t even know if she got the message. This is dramatic brilliance. It is subtle, effective, and as the final visual burning in the mind’s eye, provocatively expansive.
“Framing Britney Spears” is worth watching for the details, the history it tells, and the history it captures inadvertently by virtue of its hybrid journalistic filmmaking. This is Millennial Media and it is fitting the subject is Britney Spears, the most iconic figure of that generation. The full-length documentary, without ever expressly proclaiming it, shows how the star is being saved by her peers. An entire community, linked with nothing but love for their favorite singer, comes together to do right by her. It’s their prerogative. K-Pop fans showed the power of their stans as political weapons. “Framing Britney Spears” presents entirely new possibilities.
The New York Times Presents “Framing Britney Spears” debuts Feb. 5 on FX and FX on Hulu.