If Lana Wilson doesn’t seem like the most logical person to direct a documentary about Taylor Swift, she would agree with you. Wilson is most well-known for her 2014 documentary, After Tiller, which chronicles the only doctors in America willing to perform third-trimester abortions. Swift, meanwhile, is one of the biggest stars in music and extremely protective of her image, her circle, and her music.
“I definitely do not have the resume you would expect for this kind of film, for sure,” Wilson acknowledges to Complex. “But I think what Taylor was drawn to was my storytelling approach.”
That much is clear in Miss Americana, which made its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival this past week and hits Netflix on Friday, January 31. In a similar way as she did in her previous work, Wilson focuses an intimate and compassionate lens on a pop artist that is both larger than life and at a crossroads with her identity. Despite leaving out some memorable parts of Swift’s career—including her feuds with Scooter Braun and other music industry rivals—the documentary is a compelling look at Swift’s journey from impressionable country artist to dominant pop queen. In between riveting behind-the-scenes looks at her songwriting process, and vulnerable moments inside her home with family and friends, the movie builds primarily to Swift finding her political voice.
During an interview with Complex in Park City, Utah, Wilson says she wanted to make something that didn’t just cater to Swift’s biggest fans. In turn, it’s also a rare opportunity to peek into and linger around a singer’s private world. In case you don’t have time to see it, here are the biggest takeaways from Miss Americana.
Taylor Swift has always been concerned with being ‘good’
The documentary begins with Swift reading old diaries from middle school, reflecting on her desire to never cause trouble. She describes her entire moral code as “a need to be thought of as ‘good,’” something Wilson could completely understand.
“I think a lot of people want people to like them,” Wilson says. “We're on social media, we're all seeking approval and validation and comparing ourselves, but I think there's a special dimension for women and girls. We are taught since we were little that getting other people's approval is really important for self-worth. And also that we don't want to be seen as ‘not nice’ or ‘bad’ or ‘mean’ or ‘bitch.’”
For the majority of Swift’s early career, she was “living for the approval of strangers,” a temporarily fulfilling but personally empty conquest. The documentary points out that those early notions to “be good” catered to a wide audience and general likeability that her fans could attach themselves to, but it eventually moved away from being a symbiotic relationship.
The Kanye West incident impacted her psychologically
Though Wilson doesn’t spend too much time lingering in the past throughout Miss Americana, she does survey the timeline of Swift’s career highs and lows. You could easily classify the 2009 VMAs as a low, when Kanye West jumps on stage during the award for Best Female Video, takes the microphone from Swift and tells the crowd that Beyoncé deserved the Moon Man instead. The crowd booed West that night, but Swift only interpreted the reaction as jeers towards her. “For someone who based her whole belief system on getting everyone to clap for you, the whole crowd booing is a pretty informative experience,” Swift says.
When she recounts more of that night, she explains that it was a “catalyst for a lot of psychological paths that I went down [...] that were not all beneficial.” Suddenly, she had become wrapped up in a narrative she never asked to be part of, the subject of incessant criticism and questioning that positioned her against West. The #TaylorSwiftIsOver hashtag became a viral trend, and the “good girl” image she had so carefully and crucially created began to break down.
Swift opens up about her eating disorder
It’s a brief moment, spoken after rushing into an SUV in between hundreds of screaming fans flanking her apartment, but as she considers the impact that massive crowds and paparazzi have had on her life, Taylor gets vulnerable. Embarrassed by the way she looked in tabloid photos and impacted by online criticism, Swift admits to starving herself, trying to slim down to match impossible expectations. During concerts, she would feel lightheaded, a symptom she thought was a normal condition of performing. With hindsight, she acknowledges the danger of her decision and her poor rationalizing to sustain her malnourishment. “It’s better to look fat than look sick,” Swift says.
For Wilson, that moment in the car felt like a big deal. “I think it's really brave of her to talk about that,” she says. “I thought it was so courageous of her to talk about it given the reaction. In the editing room, when we made the scene and structured it with these flashbacks to that period in her life—the paparazzi and red carpets—I was so startled because I vaguely recalled, ‘Yeah, I'd seen those images on magazine covers [but] it never occurred to me how skinny she was or that it might be unhealthy.’
“We all think of her as an icon of beauty, but we’re inundated with images of impossible beauty, these standards that are so unrealistic,” Wilson adds. “We've gotten used to them, but we're numb to it. This juxtaposition of the images from two years ago and images of her now, in the car, where she just feels in her body in a very different way—it was just so powerful.”
Swift’s sexual harassment case prompted her political activism
One of the most profound and perspective-changing experiences Swift notes took place in 2017, when radio DJ David Mueller sued her for $3 million after she accused him of sexual harassment during a 2013 meet-and-greet. He denied the accusation and Swift counter-sued for $1. She went to court in Denver to testify and won. "You don’t feel a sense of any victory when you win because the process is so dehumanizing,” Swift says in the documentary.
A year later, at a concert in Tampa, Wilson highlights a vulnerable moment for Swift on stage, when she prefaces a song by explaining how her life has changed. “I guess I just think about all the people that weren’t believed and the people who haven’t been believed, and the people who are afraid to speak up because they think they won’t be believed,” Swift says.
Here, Wilson seizes on the experience as a catalyst for Swift to start using her political voice. When Republican Marsha Blackburn runs for a House of Representatives seat in Swift’s home state of Tennessee, it reaches a boiling point. Blackburn’s platform strips away protections for women facing violence, and highlights discriminatory values. Swift huddles with her managerial team, which includes her father, and tells them she plans to speak out against Blackburn. Naturally, there’s worry for her safety and her fan loyalties. Swift knows all about how the Dixie Chicks were ostracized by country fans for their comments about George W. Bush.
“Trump will go after you,” someone warns her. “Fuck that, I don’t care,” she replies, a line that earned heavy applause at the premiere of Miss Americana.
“There are all these moments in her life and all these layers that led her to that moment, and I feel like my job as a director was to peel back those layers so that when you get to that moment, you understand why she's making the decision she's making,” Wilson says.
Later, with her publicist and mother, Swift takes a deep breath, counts down from three, and presses send on an Instagram post that officially dips her toes into the political atmosphere. The three women clink their wine glasses.
“A lot of people think there's some giant machine behind her, like it’s a corporation,” Wilson says. “She’s actually the creative vision behind everything.” She adds, “This decision was so personal for her and that's how it is with a lot of things in her life. I loved getting to see that it was her, her mom, and her publicist doing this together with white wine—that being there in that moment affects millions of people is incredible.
The doc gives an intimate look at Swift creating Lover in the studio
The first time you realize that Wilson has gained unprecedented access into Swift’s life is the very first scene, when the singer attempts to play the piano as one of her cats walks over her hands and presses down the keys. It’s the first of many moments watching Swift sit down and work out a song, humming melodies, scribbling down and sounding out lyrics, and playing old voice notes back to herself.
“It was magical,” Wilson says of watching Swift work. “It's like you're watching the creation of a song that I could just see in my head—like this will be played at someone's wedding, or this will be playing on the department store.”
It’s easily forgotten how worldwide hits actually get made. Swift hunkers down in her home studio and starts sounding out the skeleton of “Lover” and the harmonies behind “Me!” For the latter, Wilson captures collaborator Brendon Urie, getting over a cold, power through a recording session with his high-pitched vocal cameo, as Swift offers him notes for how to inflect on specific lyrics. A few scenes also show Max Martin working on the synths and Jack Antonoff helping her reach the final verse of a new single.
“Any artist or creative person will see so much of themselves and admire and learn from Taylor's process in the studio, because it's a mixture of this incredible work ethic that she has, but then also being able to catch those flashes and inspiration when they come,” Wilson says. “Just to be able to see those lightbulb moments, and witnessing the craft put into every step of the process.”
She didn’t try a burrito until she was 26
Unrelated to her eating disorder, but nonetheless a culinary revelation, Swift sits down to eat lunch in the studio and bites into a burrito. She tells a producer that she ate one for the first time only two years ago, a perplexing blindspot.
“I love how people are responding to that burrito scene,” Wilson says. “I was not expecting that at all. I was really interested in these mundane moments. Her life is extraordinary in so many ways, but there are these ordinary moments from the very beginning that I was really curious about and interested in finding. And it was nice to get to a point in filming when we're all comfortable enough that she can just have lunch while we film.”
Swift believes she has a few more years left of people ‘allowing her to be successful’
In one particular section of Miss Americana, there’s a montage of Swift ripping off one outfit on stage to expose another one. The rapid wardrobe changes have been a central part of her shows for years, but when compiled together, along with her varying haircuts and styles that accompany them, the pressures of being a relevant artist come into focus. Swift adds more context by highlighting how the female pop singers with the most longevity—Madonna and Janet Jackson, to name a couple—have constantly evolved their looks, their style and their music.
“That’s probably my favorite moment,” Wilson says. “I was looking at all these old performances and stuff and I noticed that she would rip off a costume to reveal another one. It was a fun supercut sequence [...] which we realized later, this is the joy of editing. Later in the process, editor Lindsay Utz loved this moment of female artists reinventing themselves, and she had the idea to pair those two things and it became such a beautiful metaphor for what has gone into making this career successful that is so particular to being a female artist today.”
With that being said, Swift, laments that she might only have a few years left of being at the influential and cultural center of the industry. “There's a real pressure for a female pop artist who has already had such a long and extraordinarily successful career,” Wilson says. “She feels the pressure, the ticking clock. On the other hand, she's peerless in a lot of ways. She's done all this stuff nobody's done before. It’s really possible that that continues to happen.”