A perfect example of a phrase that says less than it intends is the message on the screen as Britney: For the Record opens. "No question went unanswered. No topic was off limits," we were told as the made-for-MTV documentary began. But in fact, very few tough questions were even asked, and Spears's replies mostly went along the lines of parroting pop psychology talking points such as "Everything happens for a reason" and "My trust has really been battered."
After two years of mostly bad publicity, during which the onetime chart-topper evolved into just another tabloid train wreck, Britney needs a public relations boost in the worst way. She may have achieved that with the documentary, during which she looks great and shows off an effortless ability to spontaneously entertain. While on a shopping spree, she dismisses one outfit as "very Katie Holmes"--brilliant.
But while Britney is too experienced at being interviewed to get openly defensive on screen, she knows how to deflect a troublesome query with a non-answer or misleading answer. At one point, she seems to dismiss reports of her drug use as mere rumors, and says that shaving her head was just an impulse like lots of people have had. Yet Spears did go to rehab in the wake of the head-shaving. Was the unseen interviewer curious about this evasive treatment of something that was in all the papers less than two years ago? We have no idea.
Viewers were given an idea of what it is like to be Britney Spears out in the world, where every venture outside the home is planned with military precision. A Britney-eye view of the paparazzi in New York City, complete with one screaming lunatic who appears upset that he didn't get the shot he was promised, is meant to be disturbing and create sympathy.
But Britney's behavior in the film raises questions about just how much she really resents this lab rat treatment. While hanging out with some actors in New York, she laments that "I used to be a cool chick" who could go places, but that the photographers have taken that away. Yet there are numerous people with Spears's level of fame who are not surrounded by paparazzi around the clock. She gets followed because she has a track record of doing things like walking into a barber shop in the middle of the night.
For Britney, there seems to be no middle ground: either you choose to tolerate being harassed out in public, or you are a prisoner in your home. "It's all I've ever known. I don't see it as being weird," she says when her interviewer suggests that her life appears to be nonstop chaos. And in fact, one senses she is bothered by any chance to stop and reflect.
"I'm the most impatient person alive," she gripes as there is a delay in a video shoot. After seeing her whisked in and out of limos for 60 minutes, it's startling to hear Britney claim that "there's no excitement, there's no passion" in her life: "It's like Groundhog Day, every day." At another point, she actually says "I never get my way! Ever!" sounding less like the mother of two than a child herself.
Spears will celebrate the morning of her 27th birthday with an appearance Tuesday on Good Morning America, which ABC has been promoting with zeal. This will be Britney's most publicized performance since the 2007 VMA disaster, but even though she will no doubt be lip-syncing, viewers will still be checking to see if the sort of energetic spectacle she used to provide onstage has returned in any way.
Some doubt about this might be raised by Britney: For the Record. The film was edited to create the impression of continual activity, but while we saw Britney shopping and being chauffeured to Broadway shows and watching dancers rehearse and getting makeup applied at photo shoots, we didn't see much in the way of her actually preparing for live performance, which with the collapse of the recording industry is almost certainly going to be the way she earns the bulk of her income from now on.
At one point in the film, we see Britney heading to a Madonna concert, where she made an unannounced appearance on stage. Madonna had some choice insight into the career path and mistakes made by Spears, who very clearly tried to model herself on the Material Girl. But Madonna has had the fire in the belly to keep going 25 years after hitting the top. Whether Britney has that same motivation is the biggest question left unanswered by Britney: For the Record.