The most headline-grabbing of these three pop docs was Framing Britney Spears, part of the New York Times Presents documentary series, and a bit of a worldwide sensation. It was both revelatory and grubby. As many have noted, the footage of interviews with Spears as a prepubescent and teenager was so deeply unpleasant, so unrelentingly sexual, that it seemed to come not from 20 years ago, but from Neanderthal times. The simple accumulation of the public record was horrifying. No wonder people such as Jimmy Savile were able to thrive. If television interviewers could ask a teenage girl about her breasts, about whether she was having sex, then is it any wonder young women could be treated as sexual chattels behind closed doors?
The second half of the film, though, was troubling for different reasons. It concentrated on the conservatorship of Spears — the legally enforced control of her life and finances — by her father Jamie. It’s not that Jamie Spears was some unfairly maligned hero (the fact that Britney continues to try to change the terms of the conservatorship proves this is disputed territory); more that at this point the film teetered into ethical dishonesty.
Having spent the first hour or so using talking heads to castigate those who monetised speculation about her mental health, despite having no actual knowledge of what she was going through, the makers did exactly the same thing. They interviewed, with credulity, the presenters of a podcast who presume to know what is going through Spears’s mind from her Instagram posts; in fact, all their interviewees were people who, one way or another, had made either money or reputations from their associations with Spears. The NYT could have made this a magazine story, of course, and communicated all the same information. But perhaps there’s more money to be made from an internationally syndicated film than there is from 5,000 words in a Sunday supplement. It really doesn’t matter if you’re on the side of the angels if your methods are the same as the devil’s.
The film ended with a list of the people who had declined to be interviewed, or had not replied to interview requests. Then a separate frame of text appeared, stating that the New York Times had attempted to contact Spears directly, and that ‘it is unclear if she received the requests’. It might have said the same about the other non-interviewees, but it didn’t. It needed that last little manipulative twist to maintain its narrative.
Track back from there to The Nine Lives of Ozzy Osbourne — which did have the full co-operation of its subject — and you could see how the treatment of what we might euphemistically call ‘troubles’ is conditioned by the sex of the troubled person. Spears was routinely castigated for her behaviour. Osbourne, though — who spent years, decades, mired in addiction, and at one point tried to murder his wife — has long been ‘good old Ozzy’. The laughing at Osbourne might have been judgmental, but it never came with the edge of genuine hatred that was directed at Spears. The film itself was fine — an utterly conventional rockumentary in which tributes were paid, greatest-hit anecdotes exhumed (the dove, the bat, the snorted line of ants, the urinating on the Alamo), and everyone went home happy. It was like watching Where Eagles Dare for the 314th time: you knew exactly what was coming next, and you were happy with that.
Stewart Lee’s film King Rocker was about Robert Lloyd, front man of the Prefects and the Nightingales. Lee uses Nicholas Monro’s statue of King Kong, displayed outside the Bullring, a work disdained by Brummies, as a metaphor for Lloyd’s own obscurity in his hometown of Birmingham (and everywhere else, for that matter): great art wilfully ignored by the idiots. It was, in truth, a strained metaphor, because Lloyd’s music — yelping, dissonant, sometimes tuneless — is the very definition of ‘acquired taste’. It’s possible that his work has remained uncelebrated not because of the idiocy of the masses but because it’s not very good (for the record, I have always quite liked his music, but I could never go further than that). One of his former bandmates observed, with deadpan accuracy: ‘Everyone loved us apart from the people who bought records.’
But Lee’s was by some distance the most interesting of the three films. If it grated that he treated everything Lloyd said as either peerlessly witty or staggeringly insightful — despite his subject upbraiding him for overanalysing everything — and if it failed to make the case for Lloyd’s genius, relying instead on you trusting Lee’s judgment, it had a warmth and humanity that more conventional rockumentaries tend to eschew. I didn’t come away from it wanting to listen to the Nightingales, but I was glad the world has allowed them to exist.