Pop star Billie Eilish opened up in 2019 about her ongoing battle with depression. It helps to know that before you watch “Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry,” a new doc on AppleTV+ that follows a year in her young life and career. The topic of her mental illness isn’t broached until the last few minutes, when Eilish reads an entry from her diary that includes self-harm fantasies. Until that point, the film seems like a fairly simple, albeit unusually raw chronicle of the rise of a young, talented, and slightly manipulative teenage pop star who projects an image of self-loathing to make sure she never faces criticism from those close to her. “My favorite thing is looking into the crowd,” she says at one point, “and they’re not looking at me.” I already hate myself, she seems to be saying in so many of her words and actions. So you’re not allowed to.
When viewed in light of her depression, however, her disposition comes across not as sullen manipulation but instead as a self-protective measure. Eilish wasn’t always this way. The film starts with home video footage of her as a bubbly pre-teen, writing songs with her brother in their modest California home, and putting them on YouTube. There’s a neat shot of them freaking out when they hear her song “Ocean Eyes” on the radio for the first time. Her joy and enthusiasm is real.
Where did that joy go? We know the story. We’ve seen before how the rigors of life in the public eye can suck the joy out of a performer’s life, often leading to abuse, addiction, and other forms of self-immolation. We see it here, too. Eilish is surrounded by adoring fans who worship her like a deity. “Your music saved my life, Billie!” one shouts at her through an open car window. Where do you go from there? When everyone in your life – from adoring fans to a sycophantic family – worships you, hating yourself may seem like a necessary balance. And the more depressed you get, the more there is to hide. Everyone wants to meet her, shake hands with her, take a picture with her. Nobody sees her discomfort, probably because she’s not permitted to show it, but it comes out in bursts. At a concert in Milan, she sprains her ankle during the opening song, and while she is able to continue, she’s so devastated at the prospect of not being able to give a perfect show that she threatens to cancel the whole performance right then.
At this description, you might be preparing your “world’s smallest violin” gesture. Surely, there are bigger problems in the world than a depressed pop star. But Eilish is so down-to-earth that it feels wrong to judge. She has famously rejected the oppressive image standards imposed on most pop stars; she spends her life onstage and off in loose-fitting clothing that effectively hides her figure. Her flummoxed reaction to meeting longtime crush Justin Bieber is adorable and would be shared by literally millions of girls her age. It’s a rare moment made possible by the unusual circumstances of her privileged life, but it’s also profoundly human and instantly relatable. The filmmakers also link Eilish’s depression to a generational plight. “There’s a lot for them to be depressed about,” her mother says at one point, citing the trauma of growing up in uncertainty of the Great Recession and the brain-altering effects of social media.
That’s what the film is getting at. Eilish spends every waking moment in the public eye, steeling herself against public humiliation, denigrating herself so that others can’t do it to her first. “I don’t want anyone who’s a fan to see me in any kind of awkward situation,” she snaps at her handlers after a poorly-arranged meet-and-greet. Isn’t that a microcosm of life on social media? For those growing up on TikTok and Snapchat, all of life is lived in the public eye. The risk of embarrassment is ceaseless. When we look at Eilish, we see ourselves, which makes the film a blisteringly effective piece of promotion for a pop star defined by her sadness – you’ll never want to say a negative word about her again – and a mirror held up to an entire generation that starts out in life broken and must struggle from the start to become whole.
“Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry” is currently streaming on AppleTV+.