Billie Eilish hasn’t been famous for very long, but when you see her in “Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry,” R.J. Cutler’s two-hour-and-20-minute but never boring documentary hang-out movie, you see why she’s already the quintessential pop star of the 21st century.
The film, which shows you more or less everything you want to know about Billie Eilish (it drops on Feb. 26 on Apple TV Plus), might be described as fan service of a high order. Since I’m a fan, though, I’d put it differently. I’d call it a deftly sincere and canny portrait, one that works precisely because it takes the time to sweat the small stuff: Billie hanging out at home with her parents, who are eager and supportive and very cool; Billie flashing her dimples and having fun like the precocious teenager she is; Billie passing her driving test and getting her dream car, a black Dodge Charger; Billie complaining that her body is “broken” (she’s not kidding; she has to wear shin splints and, at one point, sprains her ankle during the opening moments of a concert in Milan); Billie meeting Katy Perry, who tells her “It’s a weird ride”; Billie wedging in the recording of “No Time to Die” on the road like a last-minute homework assignment; Billie sulking after a show that everyone loved because she saw only the flaws; Billie lashing out after being forced into a backstage meet-and-greet, demonstrating that she’s got the anger and the will to guide her own destiny.
On the surface, almost everything about her seems forward-thinking and paradigm-busting in a post-girl-power, this-is-not-your-mother’s-rockin’-music-heroine way. When she bounds up onstage in scenes shot during her 2019 tours of Europe and the U.S., wearing a canvas-bag outfit that’s meant to conceal more than it reveals, her hair dyed jet black except for that fluorescent green splash on top, she comes off as more defiantly in control of her own image than almost any previous pop diva her age you could name.
It’s not just the optics either. In “The World’s a Little Blurry,” we see Eilish in that fabled home recording studio (basically, a bedroom outfitted with computer sound equipment and a microphone), where she has created all her music in collaboration with her producer-composer brother, Finneas O’Connell, whose stripped-down DIY synthesizer aesthetic might not have passed muster with a major recording label 20 years ago. (Back then, the recordings would likely have been treated as demos that needed to be redone in a bigger, more “commercial” fashion.) The film opens with a video clip from 2015 of the 13-year-old Billie at home, in blonde pigtails, singing “Ocean Eyes,” the dreamy single — think Enya meets Liz Phair — that first won her attention when she and Finneas released it on SoundCloud. It’s their debut song (at this point they’re nobodies), but Billie, you can see, already knows that she’s a star. It’s a mutation most of us don’t have.
Billie and Finneas’s commercial role model was Justin Bieber, the first musician to become a celebrity on YouTube, and he was also Eilish’s teen idol — as she explains in the film, she was so in love with Bieber that she feared it would ruin her romantic life, since she’d never find anyone who could live up to him. But midway through the film, she gets to meet Justin Bieber, and he’s the one who bows down in reverence.
“The World’s a Little Blurry” was shot mostly in 2019, when Billie was transitioning from budding star to supernova. Her first album is about to come out (and then it does), and along the way we pop in on the making of it and see how she and the genial but exacting Finneas work together. In a moment that’s supremely casual but also epochal, he plays the driving bass riff he’s been fine-tuning, and Billie gets the idea that maybe it would be a good match for that poem she wrote called “Bad Guy.” Billie’s song notebook is a diary dotted with fairy-tale pencil drawings that look like something out of “Where the Wild Things Are,” and with lyrics into which she pours her lightness and darkness. That torn-from-the-hidden-soul-of-youth quality is what her fans hook into, and we see them at concerts, singing along with every lyric and weeping, plugging into the moody spell of confessional meditation that Eilish creates.
And yet…for all those new-millennium trappings, “The World’s a Little Blurry” also takes us close to the aspect of Billie Eilish that’s stirringly and almost shockingly old-fashioned, and a major part of why she’s an extraordinary artist. Her voice, in its soft breathiness, its spirit of lyrical caress, makes her a contempo pop star of singular intimacy, yet that’s partly because of the way it hearkens back to older models of singing — to smoky nights in cabarets, to the bluesy retro been-around-the-blockness of Rickie Lee Jones and Amy Winehouse, to the incantatory elegance of Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald. Eilish may have hair the color of antifreeze, but she’s a punk chanteuse who can transport you into the soul of a song until it becomes a pillowy dream.
It’s clear from the movie that Billie and Finneas have an abiding love and respect for each other, but there’s an ongoing conflict between them that points, I think, to the strange pop moment we’re in, and to the choice Billie Eilish may one day have to make. Finneas, feeling the pressure from Interscope Records, is pushing the two of them to write a song that can break through — or, to put it in vulgar terms, that will be a hit. You’d think Billie would want to do that, too, but she rejects working toward accessibility. According to Finneas, “Her equation is that the more popular something is, the more hate it’s going to get.”
This is confirmed later on when Finneas tries to get her to lean into the emotion of a phrase, and she says, “Why do people belt?” Then she owns up to what’s really on her mind. In a little-girl voice she says, “I’m gonna get made fun of by the Internet when I do it.” So here’s Billie, in masterful control of her art and career, deciding that the ultimate risk she could take would be…to sing with too much passion. It makes you realize that the burden of being a pop star — and the glory of being Billie Eilish — is daring to show people the feelings they now think they hate because they’re so damned scared of them.