Dynamic concert footage was captured during the filming of “Miss Americana,” the new Taylor Swift documentary that is playing to raucous audiences during the Sundance Film Festival.
The vast majority of that incredible live action, however, didn’t make it into the 86-minute final cut.
That was intentional, said producer Morgan Neville, crediting director Lana Wilson with the vision of focusing more on actual behind-the-scenes songwriting and often unglamorous day-to-day life of a global music icon.
“We have so much footage of past tours, and I think a decision that Lana made at the beginning was really smart,” said Neville during the post-screening Q&A Friday morning at the Eccles Theatre. “Most pop star documentaries are really half concert films and half documentary, and it was like, ‘Let’s not do that.’ Let’s put the live concert stuff which people have seen in the background more — and we have mountains of it and great stuff — but I think (that) was really important.”
As someone who typically writes about music and concerts, I couldn’t agree more. What on-stage footage is included in “Miss Americana” is extremely stylish and energizing. However, that is the side of music most fans are already most familiar with. Live action fans of any band can describe to you what goes on during a concert from the audience perspective because that’s included in the price of admission.
But the parts of “Miss Americana” that really stood out were glimpses into songwriting sessions — usually involving just Swift and a producer in a simple, casual studio setting. Wilson’s cameras captured key lyrics, song phrases and melodies being born, then bounced back and forth and crafted, leading to the moments everyone is familiar with on record.
I’ve always been highly intrigued with the actual songwriting process and would give nearly anything to go back in time and see the creation of some of my favorite songs. Getting a personal look at this process should make today — or any day they see the film — a fairy tale for fans of T-Swizzle.
The coming-of-age documentary shows Swift taking even greater control of her career, supporting platforms she believes in and and getting involved in political activism. One of the more poignant scenes in the film, shows a conversation with Swift, her advisers and her parents over the pending “hit send” on an Instagram post in which she endorses two Democratic candidates in Tennessee mid-terms in 2018.
Her father, particularly, is questioning Swift’s decision to enter the political fray, especially since she’s achieved so much success by not doing so in the past.
“It’s so hard to watch people go through coming-of-age experiences no matter how old they are,” Wilson said. “And I think the scene where she talks with her family and team about her Instagram post has had a really profound impact on people. Not for the politics, but because everyone has a moment in their life where they might disagree with the people who love them the most and have to come to a place where they say, ‘I hear you, I love you, but I need to do things my own way now.’ That’s a life experience so many people have.”
Another theme in the film is the examination of the need for approval. With social media, people are very conscious about whether people like them and approve of their views. That, said Wilson, is a relatable situation that someone like Swift experiences on an international scale.
“I think for women especially, girls grow up being taught that approval is of fundamental importance to their self worth, and I think it has special significance to girls and women to see Taylor struggling with some of that,” Wilson said. “So I think that thing, and that you can still be a nice, kind, generous person — but also be OK with making people a little uncomfortable sometimes with showing emotions, like anger. That was one of the things I was hoping (people) would take away from it.”
Wilson said Swift watched a few cuts from the film and offered feedback, but that was about it in terms of the final product.
She really gave great feedback, the way any great storyteller watching a rough cut would,” Wilson said. “That was really the extent of it. She really did give us a lot of space to do our thing. And that was one of the things she made really clear at the beginning of the project that made me excited to do this. She really wanted an outside perspective on her. And she wanted a director’s perspective. And I think it’s because she’s a great storyteller that she knew that would make for the best possible film. She doesn’t have an outside perspective on her own life, nor can she, so her goal was to make something that had a perspective, but also a point of view that captured her inner life and her voice.”
When asked if there was any specific additional content she could have squeezed into the film, Wilson immediately pointed to more songwriting videos.
“We loved that material and had so much fun with it in the edit room,” Wilson said. “She’s never had a camera in the studio before. That’s what we could have spent forever in.”
Another conscious decision by Wilson was to highlight deeper album tracks in the film, rather than just plug in a string of Swift’s most famous songs.
“I really wanted to use songs that were not No. 1 hits, but great songs,” Wilson said. “You know, ‘Out of the Woods,’ ‘All Too Well’ ... songs that had a thematic story (and) emotional power — that weren’t just like, ‘Hey, let’s do a concert number now.’ So that’s how we chose the older songs that you do see in the film.”
Wilson also noted that footage showing Swift backstage — and in the hallways leading to stage or award show appearances —were also some of her favorite moments.
“Personally, I do kind of really like the unglamorous stuff,” Wilson said, pointing to a specific scene in the movie. “Just a little example: When she’s in the silvery disco ball dress walking to the stage, I used to have a very long walk in, like she goes through the kitchen, a utility room ... it’s a lengthy walk to the stage, saying hello to everyone there. It was great — but it was like 10 minutes long!”
Neville, who won an Oscar in 2014 as writer and director for Best Documentary Feature “20 Feet From Stardom,” from the 2013 Sundance field, said a favorite scene of his also missed the final edit.
“There was one moment that I really loved that didn’t make the cut,” Neville said. “(It was Swift) backstage singing ‘Bad Reputation’ by Joan Jett while she’s getting her makeup done. That was a good one.”
Those unable to catch the film at Sundance won’t have to wait long. It is set to debut on Netflix beginning Friday.