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'Britney: For the Record'

December 1, 2008 |  7:26 am


There are so many things to like about Britney Spears -- she’s so darn pretty for one thing, even when she’s chewing gum, which is still pretty much all the time. She’s got the same sort of mile-wide smile and joyous laugh that made Julia Roberts a big star. She sings pretty well for a pop star, and she moves her butt like no one’s business.

But even after more than a decade in the business, she seems disturbingly stalled in adolescence. Those tuning into "Britney: For the Record" on MTV in search of a sadder but wiser Brit certainly found the former -- "I'm sad," she confided to the camera at one point, her lovely eyes filling with tears as she realized that her entourage doesn’t listen to her like they should -- but wiser? Does a wise woman answer a question about her infamous head-shaving incident with the observation that “people shave their heads all the time”? Possibly, no.

Although a self-important typographic intro explains that Spears had invited a camera crew to follow her for 60 days during which “no question would be off limits,” many of the questions most of us still have were never, apparently, asked. Is she sober? Who knows? What was she on when she shaved her head or popped in and out of rehab or did that truly insane interview with Matt Lauer? No telling. According to Britney, things got a little rocky there after she and Kevin Federline split. She felt “devastated” and “lonely” and began to allow some “bad people” into her life.  She looks back now and wonders, “What the hell was I thinking?” but that’s as far as it goes. The only self-realization Spears has come to, it would seem, is that she’s stronger than she thought she was and that the paparazzi are really mean.

Far more revealing than “her own words” is the glimpse the film provides into the strange, insular world of the pop star. The hours spent in makeup, in wardrobe, in meetings, in weird places that aren’t really places -- hotel rooms, greenrooms, sound stages. There are several scenes shot from the interior of a black SUV (Memo to celebrities: The paparazzi are on to the whole black SUV thing), including a harrowing incident in which she literally cannot safely get out of the car. But that space, in which about six people can fit comfortably, is an unnervingly accurate symbol for how confined she is, or at least how confined she believes she is.

“I wish I wasn’t famous,” she says at one point with a wistfulness that seems sincere, “so I could feel part of people.”

“I’ve seen someone become a superstar,” says longtime choreographer and bubble-buddy Andre Fuentes, “and I’ve seen someone hurt by being a superstar.”

This is the leitmotif of “Britney: For the Record,” that fame has made her a prisoner. Although at one point she openly chastises people who complain about the backside of fame, whatever explanation she has for the years in which she lost her way comes down to the cameras that follow her like, it must be said, a pack of ravening wolves. But that she had any part in their creation -- that her past crazy-with-a-capital-K actions helped create the tabloid mess from which she is trying to extricate herself -- is not part of this film’s conversation.

Instead, we get the news flash from Madonna that “things happen for a reason” and “there is order in the universe,” though not apparently when some of her technical equipment fails and almost causes her to cancel her portion of a show at Dodger Stadium. But that’s show biz.

In this way, “Britney: For the Record” is a film of startling insight: In what universe is Madonna the go-to-gal on spiritual and emotional growth? In the world of Britney Spears. The trap Spears finds herself in may have more to do with a lack of imagination than the paparazzi -- at one point, she laments that the cameras have taken away her cool girl cred, that she can’t be a party girl anymore, which makes her kind of boring. “There’s no excitement, there’s no passion, there’s no nothing. It’s just like ‘Groundhog Day’ every day, you know? So I’m really bored,” she says. During another moment of high emotion, she drives herself practically to tears arguing with her entourage that not only doesn’t she always get to do what she wants, she never gets to do what she wants.

Brit Here is Britney Spears, apparently on the road to a tremendous comeback, young and pretty, talented and rich, and yet she has to make an effort to “stay positive every day” because life can “be so cruel.”
When asked what she hopes viewers will take away from her documentary, Spears hesitates, charmingly, then says: “That I’m just like them. That I love my babies, and I work very hard.”

It’s a lovely answer, Britney at her down-home best. It’s hard not to wish her, and her young sons, all the best in life, hard not to be happy that the early reviews of her new album are good, that her tour looks promising. But  you do have to wonder if maybe she’s in the wrong line of work. Being a superstar takes talent and dedication, both of which she certainly has. But it also takes a pretty thick skin. No matter how many music video awards you get or how loud the fans scream, life is too short to spend it being so sad and bored.

--Mary McNamara

(Photo courtesy MTV)