In 2007, amid a mental health crisis that was ghoulishly documented by the world’s cameras, Britney Spears fell prey to a media truth: nothing sells papers quicker than a beautiful young woman spiralling out of control. Fifteen years later and she’s at the centre of a different – but also eerily familiar – media vortex: a kind of compassionate exploitation, one that retains the same tawdry voyeurism as before, only wrapped in an illusion of sensitivity.
These documentaries and docu-dramas allow us to have our cake and eat it, too: we get to finger-wag at the past, tut in agreement at how terrible things were, while simultaneously deriving entertainment from the grief and trauma of a stranger. “These documentaries are so hypocritical,” Spears wrote on her Instagram in May, following the release of two films chronicling her career and the conservatorship that she’s been under since 2008. “They criticise the media and then do the same thing.”
Like clockwork, here comes another. Britney vs Spears has the slight ill-fortune of arriving on Netflix just four days after Controlling Britney Spears, a sequel to the Emmy-nominated New York Times documentary Framing Britney Spears. The latter film kicked the baroque ugliness of Spears’s conservatorship – which controls, against her will, much of her business and personal affairs – into the mainstream sphere earlier this year, following a decade in which it was discussed almost exclusively by Spears super-fans and pseudo-conspiracy theorists online. Its sequel alleged that Spears’s father Jamie – who has had full legal control of his daughter since the formation of the conservatorship – hired a security team to secretly record audio of her without her permission, including in her bedroom and during private interactions with her children. Spears’s lawyer has said that the allegation, if proven true, would mean her father had “crossed unfathomable lines”.
Whatever the murkiness of the two New York Times documentaries – which rehashed Spears’s worst personal moments and failed to scrutinise many of the wilder claims made by some of her fans in regards to the conservatorship – they’ve at least moved the needle slightly in terms of Spears’s autonomy. Such a high-profile film not only placed Spears’ plight in front of millions of eyeballs, helping her legal case against the conservatorship, but it also made the “Britney brand” as it was operating very publicly toxic. No record label, concert venue or advertising company will want to associate with an artist who the general public knows has been placed under surreal – and potentially illegal – levels of control.
Britney vs Spears offers little of the same real-world pay-off. Filmmaker Erin Lee Carr speaks to dubious figures from Britney lore – her one-time business associate Sam Lutfi, who has been accused of drugging her (he has denied the claim); her one-time paparazzo boyfriend Adnan Ghalib, here inexplicably framed as a kind of doomed martyr; the psychiatrist whose expert opinion the conservatorship hinged upon, who pops up to tell Carr that he can’t actually say anything at all; as well as Felicia Culotta, Spears’s kindly former assistant and a favourite among fans. She seems far more guarded here than in her appearances in the New York Times documentaries. Perhaps she sensed this was less essential an endeavour.
Carr and her colleague, Rolling Stone journalist Jenny Eliscu, also do little actual investigating. Their smoking gun is thousands of pages of confidential documents and emails supplied by an anonymous source. They provide alleged insight into Spears’s medical history, and apparent bombshells about her return to the spotlight following her breakdown. But the documentary doesn’t actually probe them. There is a reference to Spears being given “stimulants” in order to perform on tour and during her run as a judge on the US X Factor, and that “medication that she liked to take” would be increased if she worked. But it is discussed so vaguely – it is unclear whether Netflix lawyers told them to avoid specifics, or whether the documents themselves may have been heavily redacted – that it only raises more questions.
Britney Spears in the poster artwork for Netflix’s ‘Britney vs Spears’
Spears’s conservatorship and the circumstances that led up to it are labyrinthian. There are many players, many rumours, and often difficulties discerning fact and fiction, something exacerbated by a thriving community of Spears supporters, who treat it all like a true-crime mystery. Documentaries like Britney vs Spears only perpetuate the worst of it, gesturing towards revelations without actually saying anything, and leaving desperate fans to follow a scattering of breadcrumbs to their own potentially incorrect conclusions. It’s irresponsible, boring and a waste of everyone’s time.
At the centre of it all is Spears herself. We know – thanks to her triumphant court statement on the matter in June – that she is working behind the scenes for her freedom, with a determination to bring to justice those who have wronged her. We know that she has persevered for 13 years in a system that has thrown road blocks at her at every turn, from courts that have refused her requests for a lawyer, to the years of enforced pop-star work that she didn’t want to do. We know she is neither stupid nor weak, and that she is fighting. Everything else – but in particular bad Netflix documentaries that bring nothing new or valuable to the table – is just noise.