What is in Britney Spears’ best interests? It’s a question that has been discussed and dissected by those around the pop star for 13 years, often abstractly, or with feigned concern, in the press or in court documents. It has been that way since she was placed in a controversial conservatorship, presided over by her father, Jamie, in 2008. It’s a question also posed by film-makers, whose narrative arcs often involve picking at the scabs before reaching for the plasters. In February, the New York Times documentary Framing Britney Spears recast her career through a post-#MeToo lens, via familiar shots of Spears shaving her head and distressing images from 2008 of her in the back of an ambulance prior to being involuntarily committed to a psychiatric ward. A month after it aired, Spears said on Instagram that she was “embarrassed by the light they put me in” and that “she cried for two weeks”. In May, Spears called the BBC documentary The Battle for Britney: Fans, Cash and a Conservatorship hypocritical. “I think the world is more interested in the negative !!!!” she said.
In this context, Netflix’s Britney vs Spears – directed and narrated by fan and film-maker Erin Lee Carr – feels uncomfortable. Conceived two and half years ago as an insight into “[Spears’] artistry and her media portrayal”, the film was hastily retooled after Framing Britney Spears and Spears’ explosive testimony at a conservatorship hearing in July. Oddly, the documentary chooses not to place Spears’ own words – a rarity for so long – at the start of the film. Rather it follows a standard chronological narrative, zipping through the successes of the early years before homing in on troubled times. It pores over Spears’ divorce from Kevin Federline in a way that feels tabloid-y, while dramatic instrumental music hums underneath. It often has the feel of a schlocky true crime documentary, with Carr and the journalist Jenny Eliscu shown riffling through papers, or sticking name tags on pictures showing the main protagonists. Anytime Jamie Spears is mentioned we get a slow zooming shot of his face.
Troublingly, the documentary makers chose to interview two controversial figures from Spears’ past – paparazzo-turned-boyfriend Adnan Ghalib and Spears’ one-time manager (his words) and “friend sometimes” (her words) Sam Lutfi. While Ghalib was often in contact with Jamie, Lutfi was seen as a pariah by the Spears family who, at one point, accused him of drugging Britney, which he denies here. The pair are given what amounts to a redemption arc, with Eliscu detailing how they spearheaded a petition to get Spears’ lawyer changed, asking for the journalist’s involvement. Eliscu recounts how she handed the petition to Spears – whom she had interviewed twice for Rolling Stone in previous years – under a toilet stall in a hotel. It’s an odd, sad story that shows that the singer was keen to take more control, but Lutfi and Ghalib’s motivations feel underexplored. Ghalib also hands over text messages between him and Spears, which doesn’t feel right, not least because of allegations in the New York Times’ follow-up documentary, Controlling Britney Spears, that Spears’ phone was secretly monitored by her father and a security team (although both stressed the legality and court approval of their actions.)
Having focused so much on the start of the conservatorship, and the years now seared into public consciousness via memes, there’s hardly any time to investigate the most serious of recent events. In early 2019, Spears entered a mental health facility after cancelling a new Las Vegas residency. She later said she was forced to go and held against her will, a claim she repeated in her July testimony. This incident is only mentioned in passing here, with a former lawyer for Federline – himself involved in the conservatorship via custody battles for their two sons – dismissing her claims and saying that Spears could easily have got the message out if she had wanted to.
There’s a definite sense that the makers couldn’t keep up with an ever-shifting case but wanted to meet a deadline nonetheless (there’s a court hearing on Wednesday to decide if the conservatorship should be terminated). Tellingly, Spears’ former assistant Felicia Culotta, who gave crucial insight into her close friend in the New York Times’ documentaries, is woefully underused here. At a number of points she shuts down completely when pushed on topics she would rather not discuss. You sense, perhaps, that she’s one of the few people involved who has Britney’s best interests at heart.
Britney vs Spears is available on Netflix now