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.