Charli XCX Alone Together film documentary

Charli XCX: Alone Together reflects on creation, community and loss

The latest behind-the-scenes pop star film documents how the British artist made an album in front of her fans during the pandemic.

In an online world that values authenticity, it’s unsurprising that the behind-the-scenes popstar film has found a market. In recent years, films like last year’s Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry and Taylor Swift’s Miss Americana promise fans an intimate look at their favourite star’s life and art. The best examples of the genre capture some sense of vulnerability but are often made in close collaboration with the artists, and they depict a very catered form of intimacy. “Realness,” when it comes to pop artists, often fits as part of a larger sense of performance. 

With Charli XCX: Alone Together, we get a sense of those tropes. In an opening monologue, Charli explains how by late 2019, she felt “totally in control of every aspect of [her] career.” She was on tour, and she was coming into her own as an artist. Despite the hyper-real metaverse populated by glowing anime-inspired avatars, the footage we watch feels very crunchy: documentary footage and even video-taped behind-the-scenes moments. All aesthetic tropes draw us into a world that is “real” and “authentic.” Then, the pandemic hits.

Charli XCX was among the many celebrities who livestreamed their life during March and April 2020. She does art classes and personal training on her Instagram Live. True to the title Alone Together, the documentary draws in the experiences of her “angels” sharing their lives. They discuss the loneliness and fear of sudden isolation over video chat and sad music. Their testimonies coincide with Charli XCX’s philosophizing, equivocating their experiences. The pandemic throws a wrench at the imagined form, and the filmmakers adapt. The concert film turns into an album production film, voiced and shot by the artist herself, made in collaboration with her fans.

The film uses many of the tropes of the genre. It’s inspirational, and it portrays Charli XCX positively though vulnerable. She struggles, she cries and she overcomes. What is different, though, is the framing. With a camera in hand, we not only witness the creation of an album, but we also watch the creation of a persona. The pandemic presents a particular circumstance that forces the artist and audience to reflect on the reach of the creative process. 

All the Zooms, Lives and FaceTime that fill the movie capture the uneasy presentation of our lives while we are also sequestered away. The camera turned inward was often more claustrophobic than liberating. For most of us, whose lives aren’t constantly on display, contributed to a greater sense of alienation. We’re not used to seeing ourselves all day. Our relationship with our image is often quite abstract, occasionally disturbing. 

Where does the real Charlie XCX begin, and where does she end? Once, the camera was considered a tool that could capture the real. Screen acting was minimalist because something about the quality of light and movement translated something beyond the eyes. At least for a period, documentary images (particularly those coded as such) felt “more trustworthy” than mere testimony. What was on the screen was always more important than what was left out of the frame. Does the “real” Charli exist on camera, or only when it’s turned off?

Beyond the profound alienation of the experience, there is an undeniable sense of connection. We watch as Charli composes songs based on lyric suggestions from her fans. We understand that the final album will forever be tied up with the performance of its creation, the ecstatic discoveries and the frustrated tears. It becomes an obsession, a way of “living” during a time of stasis, and a means of avoiding reality. Reflecting on her process, Charli talks about using work to define her worth. Without work, she feels her life is meaningless.

It’s difficult to say how much interest Alone Together has for non-Charli XCX fans, but it remains a fascinating document of the early part of the pandemic. It captures the anxiety and fear and the potential for reinvention and renewal. In many ways, over the past two years, the negative feelings have only grown, accompanied by a more profound sense of anguish and stasis, while we’ve lost touch with the potential to recalibrate and reimagine a world that could be kinder and more compassionate. 

In the end, it doesn’t matter if the “real” Charli XCX appears onscreen in part because I think most of us have lost touch with what that means. With most of our lives mediated through screens and platforms, our sense of self has become fractured. The performance of our on-screen selves continues once the cameras are off, just another part of ourselves. In a way, more than ever, we’re all faced with an abundance of “self,” which paradoxically feels less than. Intentionally or not, the documentary captures this compromise, the hyper-connectivity in exchange for a sense of fullness. Perhaps even profoundly, the cost of creation itself may be the sacrifice of a part of ourselves. ■

Charli XCX: Alone Together, directed by Bradley Bell & Pablo Jones-Soler

Charli XCX: Alone Together premieres on VOD in Canada on Feb. 24. For more, please click here.

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