It’s easily one of the most unusual liberation struggles in the history of humankind. The Free Britney Spears movement involves efforts to rescue the American pop icon from her father’s legal and financial control. When Spears attends hearings in her litigation against her father, crowds of her fans show up too. Some of them are among the characters featured in the New York Times documentary Framing Britney Spears. The 74-minute film was released in America in February and is now available in India on the discovery+ streaming platform.
Samantha Stark’s documentary centres on the bizarre legal quagmire that has swallowed Spears for over a decade. Spears has been under the control of her father, Jamie Spears, since 2008, following a series of publicly documented relationships and break-ups, meltdowns and runs-in with the tabloid media that hounded her every move.
Jamie Spears was granted conservatorship of both his daughter’s person and her considerable estate – a decision usually reserved for elderly people who are unable to take care of themselves, the film points out. Britney Spears is now 39 and the mother of two sons from her former husband Kevin Federline. Although Jamie Spears no longer has control of Spears as a person, he retains the right to largely control her earnings.
The problems around conservatorship is also the subject of the crime thriller I Care a Lot, which is on Netflix. J Blakeson’s black comedy stars Rosamund Pike as Marla, a court-appointed guardian who serially swindles her silver-haired clients. Marla runs into trouble when her latest mark turns out to be the mother of a dangerous criminal.
Framing Britney Spears traces the events that led up to Spears’s predicament. Through archival footage and interviews, including with her former assistant and manager, a record company executive and New York Times journalists, a familiar picture emerges of instant celebrity and equally rapid descent.
A gifted singer whose talents were recognised when she was very young, Britney Spears shot to fame thanks to television appearances. In 1999, at the age of 17, she became a global star with her hugely successful album …Baby One More Time. The video for the album’s title track established Spears’s persona as a figure that was simultaneously virginal and highly sexualised.
The documentary reveals the price of overnight success. The money poured in, the fanbase exploded and tabloids and the entertainment media developed an inordinate interest in Spears’s personal life. One of her most publicised relationships was with singer Justin Timberlake. His cruel reaction to the break-up, which he blamed on her, was enshrined in the music video of his song Cry Me a River, which featured a Spears lookalike.
Spears’s male peers were spared such overwhelming scrutiny, commentators note in the documentary. She was asked in interviews if she was a virgin and whether she had broken Timberlake’s heart. Later on, she was accused of being a bad mother and worse. The wife of a state governor said she would shoot Spears because she was a bad influence on young girls.
Between 2006 and 2007, Spears went from pop princess to train wreck. Events over the years laid the ground for the courts deciding that Spears had lost control over her actions, the film notes – divorce following the birth of two sons, Spears shaving off her hair, attacking a paparazzo Daniel Ramos with an umbrella for stalking her, losing custody of her children.
Ramos’s reaction to the notorious umbrella incident in the documentary is revealing. “It was a good night for us because it was a money shot,” he told the filmmaker. The paparazzi never left Spears alone because she enjoyed the attention, he claimed. And what about when she did want to be left alone, the director asked him. Ramos’s vague reply tells us everything we need to know about the entertainment media’s glee over the public decline of celebrities and their inability to analyse their own role in this slide.
Jamie Spears, who refused to be interviewed for the film, emerges as the reliable villain of the story. Although the makers could not interview Britney Spears – a request received no reply, they stated – the singer issued a statement on her Instagram account that appeared to allude to the documentary. “Each person has their story and their take on other people’s lives!!!!” Spears wrote. “Remember, no matter what we think we know about a person’s life, it is nothing compared to the actual person living behind the lens!!!!”
Spears’s fans have been obsessively parsing her gnomic Instagram posts for insights into her mental state. And yet, we know her even less now – she is unknowable, a commentator says in the documentary.
Despite being little more than a summary of events, with fleeting observations and commentary that doesn’t adequately place Spears within a larger context, Framing Britney Spears does spark off a larger debate on conservatorship. In an interview early on in her career, Spears says, you have to control what you do, otherwise you get sucked in by people that are not necessary. The litigation between Spears and her father continues, indicating that the ending for this typically American crash-and-burn saga is waiting to be written.