To the public eye, Britney Spears is many things. She’s been given so many different masks to wear that some of them have begun to blur into one another.
How does one separate the schoolgirl outfits that defined her “Baby One More Time” era from the high-pitched, squeaky voice of the woman appearing in odd, nonsensical TikTok videos? Who is the Mississippi-born mother of two when set against the “Princess of Pop” who has sold out stadiums, had love affairs with some of pop’s biggest names and produced tracks that defined the genre?
Who is Spears with regards to her ever controversial conservatorship: the victim or the wayward star in need of guidance?
In “Britney vs. Spears,” filmmaker Erin Lee Carr and journalist Jenny Eliscu seek to tackle some of those questions. While they are laser-focused on the issue of the conservatorship, Carr and Eliscu build up to the issue of it with a historical look at who Britney Spears is, who she’s been, and who she may very well be.
Using all of Spears’ biggest headlines as milestones, Carr and Eliscu take the viewer on a journey from Spears’ debut album all the way up to the cancellation of her Vegas residency. While leading us from stop to stop, they remind us of the documentary’s most pressing questions: is Spears free? Has she ever been? What will it take for her to become so?
The timing of “Britney vs. Spears” can’t be ignored. The documentary dropped on Netflix on Sept. 28, 21 days after Jamie Spears, Britney’s father, filed a petition to put an end to his conservatorship of his daughter’s estate.
Four days prior to “Britney vs. Spears” being released, The New York Times presented their own documentary on the conservatorship, “Controlling Britney Spears.” Social media has been abuzz with hashtags like #FreeBritney since 2019, and some of Hollywood’s biggest names have taken to campaigning for Spears’ legal freedom.
The issue of the conservatorship is a pot of water that has been boiling for some time now, and “Britney vs. Spears” just so happened to jump in later than most.
Even if it had been released sooner, it’s doubtful that it would have done the documentary much good. At the end of the day, “Britney vs. Spears'' feels less like a serious examination of the ethics behind Spears’ treatment and more like a collection of tabloid headlines. Though Carr and Eliscu’s interviews with those closest to the conservatorship are impressively forward and truth-seeking, they do little to illuminate what was and is really going on behind the scenes.
Carr and Eliscu ask hard-hitting, serious questions, but come away with little more than what the public can find out just by opening an issue of People Magazine. Their documentary fails to ask or answer questions that aren’t already being answered or asked by Twitter users under their favorite pro-Britney hashtags.
Those who know Spears’ history well will learn nothing new from the documentary, and those brand new to the star’s tumultuous life will feel lost at brief mentions of important moments in her life. Newcomers will believe that incredibly serious moments in Spears’ life were nothing more than brief hiccups, and that certain relationships had more impact on the creation of the conservatorship than they truly did.
Ultimately “Britney vs. Spears” fails at answering some pretty hefty questions. It is a distant, hollow observation of the legal battle between Spears and her own family that somehow feels just as vulturous as tabloid headlines do.
More heartfelt, sincere discussions of Spears’ history, life and conservatorship can be found in YouTube videos created by those without the connections that Carr and Eliscu have.