Comeuppance for conniving music industry power-mongers has arrived on screens recently: Colonel Parker in Elvis and, on the small screen, Jamie Spears, the heartless manipulator of his daughter Britney’s life and career, emerge as real-life arch villains worthy of our spite. Although the Britney-related Emmy nod went to the straighter, more buttoned-down New York Times doc Controlling Britney Spears, a follow-up to its earlier Framing Britney Spears, I cast my own rogue vote for the more reckless, slightly gonzo member of the pack, Britney vs. Spears, as the superior Britney doc of the day.
Director Erin Lee Carr’s film skillfully — and artfully — digs into the sad but ultimately triumphant tale of Britney’s rollercoaster career, from pop mega-star highs to grim depths of an unraveling phase captured in the paparazzi-fueled media frenzy, and a dark, repressive 13-year period encaged in the “conservatorship” set up by her father. He was finally removed from his position just last year, after an eloquent and heartfelt courthouse speech from Britney.
Shucking standard documentarian objectivity from the outset, Carr and collaborator Jenny Eliscu weave themselves into the story, in on-screen detective mode, and the pursuit of the story itself becomes a subplot. Not incidentally, Carr has worked with the newer-new-journalism outpost of Vice. They don’t hide the unambiguous alliance with the “free Britney” campaign, as the film explores shady characters on the conservator camp (including Louise Taylor, wife of Calvary Chapel pastor Robert) and sympathetic figures on the pre-conservatorship sides of the story.
Some of the chilling footage is literally raw, insider clips capturing the animalistic frenzy of paparazzi hordes swooping down on her. But as the filmmakers point out early in the doc, even in those “gotcha” shots of the pop star as frightened animal, you can see the humanity of the person. The humanity of her father, however, remains open to question.