In the pre-pandemic era, Billie Eilish rose from out of nowhere to become a global phenomenon with her 2019 album WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? Her apocalyptic lyrics, horror-movie aesthetic, and irreverent attitude resonated with zoomers coming of age in an uncertain time, while her reedy, jazzy voice, showtune-catchy melodies, and eclectic production piqued the interest of an older cohort. Years of hard work precede every overnight success, however, and the documentary The World’s a Little Blurry depicts the making of Eilish’s blockbuster debut album and the effects of its success on the young singer and her family.
The film opens with GoPro footage of Eilish and her family listening to the premiere of “Ocean Eyes” on “the coolest radio station in the world,” KCRW. From there, director RJ Cutler shows her and her brother Finneas writing and recording the songs that will eventually make the album. The fly-on-the-wall footage of the siblings paging through their journals, spitballing lyrics, and playing melodies and samples on a lo-fi computer system could have an aspirational, inspirational effect on songwriters and producers in the audience. Other scenes shed light on aspects of Eilish’s music that some listeners might find objectionable; the bro-y friend cohort we see in the first half of the documentary helps contextualize the casually problematic lyrics of songs like “bad guy” and “wish you were gay”.
At times, The World’s A Little Blurry comes off as a response to the recent documentary Framing Britney Spears. Unlike the Spears family, Eilish’s parents are a frequent presence in the singer’s life. Lighter moments — such as a cut from Eilish performing in an oversize Louis Vuitton ensemble to her mother loading the outfit into a washing machine the next day — give way to poignant observations about the effect of fame on someone as young as Billie and the importance of strong familial support in the life of an adolescent celebrity. Cutler includes footage of Eilish having a “tic attack” and candid discussions of her struggles with mental illness, which contrasts with the Barbie-doll perfection expected from previous generations of teen idols.
Eilish’s relationship with her fans is at the heart of the film. Footage of teenage girls crying at concerts has been a cinematic cliche since A Hard Day’s Night, but hearing the singer talk about what they mean to her makes shots of audiences at her concerts seem fresher than it does in other music documentaries. When Eilish interacts with her fans, they don’t treat her like an untouchable idol but as a super-talented best friend who became successful doing what she loves. As a result, moments where Eilish believes she failed her audience — as in scenes where she injures her ankle onstage at an Italian music festival or fields invasive Instagram comments the morning after a big show in New York — land even more painfully than they might have without that context.
At two and a half hours, The World’s A Little Blurry might seem daunting for someone who’s not already sold on Billie Eilish. RJ Cutler and editors Greg Finton and Lindsay Utz keep the film moving at a brisk pace, and the first half of the film will be of great interest to music fans and process nerds. Eilish comes off not only as a talented and charismatic performer, but also as a thoughtful, flawed protagonist who makes the successes and challenges of fame seem very immediate to fans and skeptics alike.