An enduring image from Electric Picnic 2019 was of a young girl bawling her eyes out during Billie Eilish's Friday-evening set. The big screens alighted on the fan, moved to heights of emotion as Eilish performed to what may well have been the largest audience the music festival's main stage has ever seen.
What we couldn't have known then is that Eilish would herself be reduced to tears 24 hours later, in Milan, when she sprained her ankle. That incident, in which she pulls up as she's about to start her set and hobbles, weeping, into the wings, is one of the pinch points in Billie Eilish: The World's a Little Blurry, an absorbing peek behind the pop-star curtain from the veteran documentarian RJ Cutler, maker of The War Room and The September Issue.
Billie 'is so, so woke about her own persona,' her brother, Finneas, explains to his mother. 'I think she's terrified of anything she makes being hated.' 'Y'all talking about me?' Eilish says, materialising at the kitchen door
The level of access Cutler has gained is astonishing. There are moments when it feels as if you are tiptoeing around the tumbledown Los Angeles house Eilish shares with her hippyish parents and her calm and collected older brother and collaborator, Finneas. In one early scene Finneas and his parents have a huddle in the kitchen as they discuss Eilish’s reluctance to compose a pop song to order.
“I’ve been told to write a hit. But I’ve been told not to tell Billie that we have to write a hit,” Finneas explains to his mother. “Billie… is so, so woke about her own persona on the internet that I think she’s terrified of anything she makes being hated. And I think her equation is that the more popular something is the more hate it is going to get.”
“Y’all talking about me?” Eilish says, materialising at the kitchen door. Eilish and Finneas are multiplatinum musicians, but this could be any family in the world having a row. The only difference is that in this case the subject is whether they should write a number-one single to impress the head of Interscope.
There are some funny moments, such as the unimpressed look that flashes across the face of Eilish’s mother as the lovesick singer coos at her bad-boy boyfriend (one of the few instances in the film when Eilish moves outside her deadpan persona). And film goes full Spinal Tap during a backstage Coachella run-in with Katy Perry and her huggy finance, Orlando Bloom, whom Eilish fails to recognise.
The World's a Little Blurry traces Eilish's rise from cult pop star to global sensation. Throughout, she and her family come across as sensible, grounded and entirely in on the joke, and it is clear she is never in danger of being thrown to the wolves, Britney Spears-fashion.
Still, there are points at which things start to fray. Eilish stomps out of a meet-and-greet in New York, appalled at all the “randos” she’s being asked to pose for photos with – something a more image-conscious star such as Taylor Swift or Shawn Mendes would never do.
News of her behaviour duly leaks on to social media: someone reports that she was “rude”, and she has a quiet meltdown on the tour bus: “Billie… Billie… All I ever hear is Billie.” Earlier, as exhaustion overwhelms her on a tour of Europe, her Tourette syndrome kicks in. She puts her head back, her eyes roll and she began to shake.
Justin Bieber, her childhood idol, calls to congratulate her, and she can hardly contain herself. But she also comes across as someone for whom fame is a trial to be negotiated rather than a swimming pool into which to dive
The World's a Little Blurry culminates with Eilish and Finneas, who produces and cowrites many of her songs, sweeping the board at the 2020 Grammys. (The screen fades to black before the pandemic.) Justin Bieber, her childhood idol, calls to congratulate her, and she can hardly contain herself (having already wept as she hugged him at Coachella). But she also comes across as someone craving normality and for whom fame is a trial to be negotiated rather than a swimming pool into which to dive.
It ties the story up with a neat bow. But even if you love Eilish’s music, the documentary does leave some unanswered questions. Eilish refuses to objectify herself in photo shoots and in the way she is marketed, and it would have been interesting for Cutler to delve into that. We also hear that she has been home-educated and never attended high school. But why?
A cynic might come away from The World’s a Little Blurry feeling that the Eilish brand has been carefully maintained throughout. She’s a little grumpy, slightly eye-rolley but never anything more outrageous. And the tension between her and Finneas over the pressure to write a hit is resolved off camera, and suddenly we discover that he’s moved out of home.
Still, Eilish and her family come across as reassuringly down to earth, and it is heartening to see someone keep their feet on terra firma even as they are catapulted on to the global stage. The World's a Little Blurry is a long way short of warts and all, but it does convey the velocity of Eilish's ascent and the occasional bouts of altitude sickness she experiences on her way to the top.
Available to stream on Apple TV+