Review: “The New York Times Presents … Framing Britney Spears”

Year: 2021
Runtime: 1 hour, 13 minutes
Director: Samantha Stark
Stars: Britney Spears (archive footage), Liz Day, Felicia Culotta, Hayley Hill, Dave Holmes

By Valerie Kalfrin

At ten years old, future pop icon Britney Spears sang with a range greater than her years on the TV talent show “Star Search.” But all host Ed McMahon noticed were her “most adorable pretty eyes.”

“Do you have a boyfriend?” says the sixtysomething McMahon in archive footage. “How about me?”

This cringy moment and others make the short documentary “The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears” a sympathetic yet riveting watch. The program is one part of a ten-part New York Times docuseries airing on Hulu where the newspaper highlights one topic per episode.

Fans who support freeing Britney Spears from the conservatorship managing her estate in The New York Times documentary “Framing Britney Spears” / Courtesy of IMDB.com

“Framing Britney Spears” aims to delve into the conservatorship that placed Spears’s father in control of her estate after her public breakdown and involuntary hospitalization in 2008. (Since filming wrapped, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge earlier this year denied her father’s objections to share monetary control with a financial institution, Bessemer Trust.)

It explains how conservatorships often involve the elderly and questions whether Spears, now 39, should remain under such restrictions. It also introduces the loyal fans who started the conversation around this issue with the social media hashtag #FreeBritney.

“Framing Britney Spears” generates loads of sympathy for the singer and attacks tabloid culture by viewing her rise and downfall through a #MeToo perspective.”

Because Spears and none of her inner circle grant interviews, the documentary doesn’t quite demonstrate whether she’s capable of managing her own affairs. The lawyers quoted don’t discuss specifics, either. One recalls how the singer wanted to hire him, but a judge dismissed him based on a medical report that the court did not share. “We don’t know what we don’t know,” the lawyer says.

Nevertheless, “Framing Britney Spears” generates loads of sympathy for the singer and attacks tabloid culture by viewing her rise and downfall through a #MeToo perspective. Moments that a number of viewers likely didn’t question back when — the awkward “Star Search” banter, interviewers asking a teenage Spears about her breasts and virginity — now seem painful and unfair. When’s the last time a boy band singer got scrutinized this way?

A teenage Britney Spears in file footage in the documentary “Framing Britney Spears” / Courtesy of IMDB.com

Family friend Felicia Culotta, who was Spears’s longtime assistant and travel chaperone, fills in some biographical gaps, as does her early talent agent Nancy Carson and Hayley Hill, a former Teen People fashion director and Spears’s former stylist. New York Times journalist Liz Day and director Samantha Stark (TV’s “The Weekly”) also gather other commentators with intriguing insights, including Dave Holmes, formerly of MTV, and Times critic at large Wesley Morris.

Morris, for instance, notes that the “…Baby One More Time” video that launched Spears to stardom in 1998 depicted her as a coquettish Catholic schoolgirl, but “the sex part” wasn’t the allure for teens. “It’s the control and command over herself and her space that seems cool,” he says.

“Framing Britney Spears” implies that we need to do better by young people, especially girls, with mental health struggles in the spotlight.”

Spears certainly projected confidence, but the assemblage of footage here chips away at that illusion. In retrospect, she walks a nearly impossible tightrope the more popular she becomes: virginal, sweet, sexy, coy, singing about being “not that innocent” or a “slave for you” while dancing with a Burmese python. Her image becomes so contradictory, you wonder how much control she had. No wonder by 2004, she says on camera, “I feel like I’ve been missing out on life.”

An older and more polished Britney Spears in the documentary “Framing Britney Spears” / ©2021 FX Networks / Courtesy of IMDB.com

Interviewers barely noticed. Diane Sawyer makes Spears cry by asking what she did to hurt then-ex Justin Timberlake; meanwhile, he brags in print and radio interviews about having sex with her. Later, Matt Lauer (of all people) also triggers tears, asking her about her parenting skills and the intense paparazzi attention.

Spears’s public collapse comes after divorce from husband Kevin Federline soon after the birth of their second child. First, she walks into a hair salon and shaves her head. Later, she rams an umbrella against a photographer’s truck after Federline doesn’t let her see their children. What she’s lost becomes a category on “Family Feud,” with contestants gleefully listing her hair, her husband, and her mind.

Spears is no longer a punchline, but “Framing Britney Spears” implies that we need to do better by young people, especially girls, with mental health struggles in the spotlight.

As Morris notes: “There was too much money to be made off her suffering.”

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