“Britney Spears needs our help,” says TikToker @tythecrazyguy less than a minute into Samantha Stark’s Framing Britney Spears, a new documentary about #FreeBritney.
Users of the hashtag, which snowballed into the public lexicon in 2019, seek to free the superstar of the legal conservatorship she was placed under 13 years ago this month, following an extended period of personal troubles. Stark’s film, set for a Hulu and FX release on February 5, is the sixth instalment in the docuseries The New York Times Presents. It’s also primed to become its most talked-about.
The #FreeBritney movement is characterized by a mix of investigative journalism, amateur legal sleuthing, and fan speculation that can have an air of conspiracy theory. But what’s certainly not conjecture are the specifics of the conservatorship itself, since they’ve been well-documented in court filings. As journalist Liz Day summarizes in the film, “Britney’s conservators are able to control who can and cannot visit her, and retain security guards for her 24 hours a day. They have the power to access her medical records and communicate with her doctors. […] They can make recording, touring, and TV deals for her, and are deeply involved in her finances.”
As a Times-produced project—the film was written and is largely narrated by the newspaper’s staffers—it hews mostly to concrete facts like these, plus any legal or cultural context we might need to make sense of them. But there’s nothing dry or jargony about the finished product, which succinctly and often gut-wrenchingly walks us through how Spears got from point A to point B.
In a wise move on Stark’s part, point A is not the onset of the conservatorship but rather Spears’s humble beginnings in Kentwood, Louisiana. Here, we meet our key players, including the uber-talented child star and her father, James (aka Jamie). The latter was reportedly fairly absent in Spears’s life as compared to her mother, Lynne, and—by multiple accounts—had a bit of a money-grubbing reputation. “The only thing Jamie ever said to me was, ‘My daughter’s gonna be so rich, she’s gonna buy me a boat,” says former Jive Records marketer Kim Kaiman.
Drawing from talking head interviews and sometimes rare archival footage, Framing recounts Spears’s rise to fame and tumultuous time in the public eye, the latter of which predated her much-publicized breakdown by almost a decade. Indeed, the eventual boiling point comes out of a perfect storm of an exploitative gossip industry, plain old misogyny, a divorce, and a culture that had no idea how to compassionately talk about mental illness—or perhaps didn’t care to.
In some ways, the film doubles as a list of indictments: of Justin Timberlake, who weaponized his breakup with the more-famous Spears to give his fledgling solo career a boost; of tabloids, which recognized her as their golden goose; and of the failed filmmakers-turned-paparazzos who chased her around Los Angeles, incentivized by the fact that photos of her could sell for up to $1 million. As critic Wesley Morris puts it, “There was too much money to be made off her suffering.” When Spears does seem to crack under the combined pressure of it all, Jamie suddenly re-enters the picture to become one of her co-conservators, something the film’s narrators suggest we should be skeptical of. The arrangement, after all, quickly became something of a “hybrid business model,” with the elder Spears pocketing a cut of the younger’s earnings each year.
Stark’s talking heads are cleverly chosen, from former members of Spears’s inner circle to lawyers on both sides of the case. Most vital as far as the conservatorship goes is perhaps Adam Streisand, Spears’s preferred attorney who was quickly beat out by the judge-appointed Samuel D. Ingham III. Streisand tells us that he believed her to be fully capable of choosing her own lawyer, contrary to the judge’s ruling, and further confirms that she didn’t want her father to have anything to do with the conservatorship—understanding the arrangement itself to be an inevitability.
Since no one from Spears’s family agreed to be interviewed for the film, our main character witness is Felicia Culotta, her former assistant and long-time friend who found herself pushed out of Spears’s orbit post-2008. In one touching moment, Culotta recalls a newly successful Spears driving through Kentwood giving out hundred-dollar bills. “And it wasn’t, ‘Hi, I’m Britney Spears,’” Culotta says. “It was, ‘Merry Christmas.’”
While Framing impressively burns through almost four decades in just 75 minutes, it naturally has to make some narrative sacrifices. The most conspicuous, and perhaps unfortunate, is Spears’s actual art; with the exception of a couple clips from her breakthrough in the late ‘90s, we aren’t treated to any of her musical or visual output. This matters because it was the main channel through which she fought back and attempted to reclaim aspects of her narrative during this time. In largely omitting it, the film inadvertently makes it seem as if she sat back and watched as Timberlake punched down, and as she became late-night’s favourite punching bag. (This was simply not the case.) The omission runs the slight risk of discrediting one of the film’s prime arguments, which is that Spears has never been as helpless or malleable as many have liked to believe.
Stark’s film loses some steam in its final chapter, but only because the conservatorship saga is still unfolding, and therefore lacks the sort of clarity and hindsight that make the first 40 minutes so riveting. You can also feel her treading carefully around the many compelling but as-yet uncorroborated theories associated with the #FreeBritney movement—that Spears sends coded messages through her Instagram posts, for instance. As Streisand says in the film, “The problem is we don’t know what we don’t know.” But that same journalistic integrity, to be very clear, is also Framing’s biggest accomplishment: the many vetted facts we’re given are pretty damning in and of themselves, and having them all in one place is likely to galvanize the movement—perhaps in part by nudging others into it. Simultaneously, and quite unsettlingly, the film asks us to consider our own role in this story; how we may have contributed somehow by way of our tabloids bought, our unkind jokes made and laughed at.
The New York Times Presents – Framing Britney Spears airs Friday, February 5 at 10pm on FX and on Hulu Beginning July 10.
Images courtesy of FX