Taylor Swift wows Sundance with intimate documentary ‘Miss Americana’

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Taylor Swift arrives at the Eccles Theatre before the premiere of her film "Taylor Swift: Miss Americana" on the opening night of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020.

Park City • The reigning queen of pop music didn’t sing a note from the stage of the Eccles Theater on Thursday night, but the audience of 1,300 gave her a standing ovation anyway.

“That was really nice of you to stand up, thank you,” Taylor Swift said in response, after the premiere of the documentary “Miss Americana” closed out the opening night of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

The movie will screen five more times throughout the festival, including screenings Friday, Jan. 24, and Sunday, Feb. 2, at The Grand Theatre in Salt Lake City. It will start streaming on Netflix on Friday, Jan. 31.

The documentary follows Swift through 2018 and 2019 as she works on the songs that would make up her latest album, “Lover.” Director Lana Wilson shows Swift in private moments with family and captures her creative process in the studio.

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

“We started the process not really knowing that there would be a documentary,” Swift said during the post-screening Q&A. “There were a lot of hours where [Wilson] had to listen to me talk about my feelings.”

Through the interviews and behind-the-scenes footage, a theme emerged: Swift reflecting on her need for approval from an audience, and how that need for years kept her from saying what was really on her mind.

“We all want people to like us,” Wilson said. “Girls, especially growing up in this culture, are taught that other people’s approval is of paramount importance to their self-worth.” And Swift, Wilson said, “experienced that, but on this international stage, but then coming to a completely new understanding of your relationship to other people’s approval, was really inspiring and empowering.”

The time Wilson filmed, the director said, “turned out to be a transformational chapter in [her] life.”

In the film, Wilson shows Swift taking more risks in her songwriting, covering such subjects as the court case in which she had to defend herself for accusing a Denver radio personality of groping her. Swift also jumps into politics for the first time in her career, endorsing Phil Bredesen, the former Democratic governor in her home state of Tennessee, in his 2018 Senate run against Republican Marsha Blackburn. (Bredesen lost, but thousands of young people registered to vote on Swift’s advice.)

Swift picked Wilson for the job on the strength of Wilson’s 2013 documentary “After Tiller,” in which she profiled the four doctors in America who, at that time, still performed third-trimester abortions. (The title referred to George Tiller, a Kansas doctor who was gunned down in his church by an anti-abortion activist in 2009.)

That movie, Swift said, “so artfully maneuvered through such a touchy subject with such emotional intelligence.”

Wilson said Swift set few ground rules before filming. “You were very open from the beginning,” Wilson said to Swift onstage at the Eccles. Swift even let Wilson film in the recording studio, something she never before allowed.

“I didn’t want to know if it would stop me from feeling like I could come up with ideas,” Swift said. “There’s so much ridiculous-sounding ad-libbing when you’re writing songs. So much of it sounds ridiculous until it sounds all right.”

So often, Swift said to Wilson, “in the public eye, when I get sad or upset or humiliated or angry or go through a really horrible time, I feel people lean in with this hunger. And [Wilson] never did that to me. … I felt like when I got sad, [she] did, too. It all worked out all right. It didn’t make feel like, ‘Oh, she’s got a good part for her movie now.’”