Sundance review: ‘Miss Americana’ is an eye-opening look at Taylor Swift finding a new voice

(Sundance Institute via AP) A scene from "Taylor Swift: Miss Americana," an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

There’s a scene early on in “Taylor Swift: Miss Americana” that shows this won’t be another movie-length home video of a pampered pop star.

It happens on the day in 2018 when the Grammy nominations are announced. Swift is on a couch, on the phone to someone — presumably an agent or a publicist — who delivers the bad news that Swift’s album “Reputation” did not get nominated in the major categories. (Ultimately, it received just one nomination, for pop vocal album, but lost to Ariana Grande’s “Sweetener.”)

Swift replies, “This is good, this is fine,” but it’s obvious that it isn’t. But she seems less upset at the Grammy voters than at herself for making an album that wasn’t up to her standards.

So, in the next scene, she’s back in the studio, working out the sound for what would become the title track of her next album, “Lover.” That album, by the way, is nominated in the same Grammy category — but everything else shown in “Miss Americana” would lead a viewer to think Swift isn’t as hung up about what Grammy voters think this time.

[Read more: Taylor Swift wows Sundance with intimate documentary ‘Miss Americana’]

In this intimate and eye-opening documentary — which begins streaming Friday on Netflix — director Lana Wilson catches Swift as she’s changing her game and rethinking what it means to be a world-famous music icon in this part of the 21st century.

In the first half of the documentary, Wilson compiles a breezy history of Swift’s rise, from 13-year-old country singer to teenage crossover star, through the embarrassment of having her 2009 MTV Video Music Award victory hijacked by Kanye West’s “I’mma let you finish” tirade. In interviews with Wilson, Swift talks honestly about an entertainer’s need for approval — and how constant criticism, from the media and herself, led to a bout with an eating disorder.

Swift also is a shrewd observer of pop culture, having seen it from the inside out. She talks candidly about how female recording artists have to reinvent themselves constantly, more so than their male counterparts, but have to do it within confined parameters — edgy but not too edgy, challenging but not to where the audience is uncomfortable.

Through the film, Wilson (who directed the 2013 abortion documentary “After Tiller”) also shows Swift deciding to make a political endorsement for the first time in her career. It happened in a single tweet, but Wilson’s camera captures the hard thinking Swift did, and the pushback she got from her family and management, before pushing “send.”

Wilson leaves room for some quirky bits, like Swift doting on her three cats or giving a manicure to her “You Need to Calm Down” collaborator Todrick Hall backstage at an awards show. But even then there’s a message: “I want to wear pink and let you know I know about politics.” “Miss Americana” shows Swift as an artist and activist just warming up for the next act.


’Taylor Swift: Miss Americana’

The pop star lets a filmmaker capture her in raw and honest moments as she’s finding her adult musical and political voice.

At Sundance • Playing in the Documentary Premieres section of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, remaining screenings: Thursday, Jan. 30, 9:30 a.m., The Ray (Park City); Saturday, Feb. 1, Resort (Sundance); and Sunday, Feb. 2, 6:15 p.m., The Grand (Salt Lake City).

Streaming • The movie starts streaming Friday, Jan. 31, on Netflix.

Rated • Not rated, but probably PG-13 for brief strong language and discussion of sexual assault.

Running time • 86 minutes.