How Netflix's top-secret Britney Spears documentary hopes to get her story right
September 22, 2021·10 min read
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A new Netflix documentary about Britney Spears will be released next week, the second film about the pop star to come out in 2021. (Kevin Winter / Getty Images)
For months, that's the code name Britney Spears fans have used to refer to a secretive documentary on the pop star believed to be in the works at Netflix. The rumor began after the performer began making vague Instagram references using the phrase, often posting red-themed images of colored clothing or flowers. Red, of course, happens to be the color of the Netflix logo — hence the fan conspiracy theory.
This week, the theory became an actuality: Netflix confirmed "Britney vs Spears" will premiere on Sept. 28. And though Spears did not, in fact, collaborate with filmmaker Erin Lee Carr, the movie's release date will coincide with a pivotal moment in her life. The next hearing in her conservatorship case is scheduled for Sept. 29 — a court date that could determine whether the performer’s father, Jamie Spears, is removed as her legal guardian.
“Britney vs Spears” is not the first nonfiction film to investigate Spears' circumstances. In February, a New York Times-produced doc, “Framing Britney Spears,” premiered on FX and Hulu.
Taking a critical look at the media's treatment of Spears during the height of her fame, the release prompted “We are sorry Britney” to start trending on Twitter. Justin Timberlake, who dated Spears from 1999 to 2002, issued a public apology to “take accountability” for the way he had treated his ex-girlfriend.
The movie also forced Carr to reshape "Britney vs Spears," the project she’s now spent 2½ years developing. Carr has experience tackling subjects of high interest: She’s directed films about Gypsy Rose Blanchard,Michelle Carter and the USA Gymnastics scandal. (That last documentary, which aired on HBO in 2019, was the first of two films about Larry Nassar’s victims; a Netflix take followed a year later.)
Even so, Carr says she’s never worked on anything as highly anticipated as “Britney vs Spears.”
“People combed through my Twitter and saw that in 2018 I had posted her autograph. Somebody did a tarot card reading on what the Netflix documentary was going to be about,” said the 33-year-old, who teamed with Rolling Stone veteran Jenny Eliscu to help her report on Spears. “I was like, ‘This is next level.’ You can lose yourself inside the chaos of the story, but at the heart of it is this person publicly and privately trying to get their own freedom back.”
In an interview with The Times, Carr discussed the difficulty of convincing sources to talk about Spears, how she feels about the singer herself watching the movie and the prospect of the conservatorship finally coming to a close.
What initially interested you about trying to tell the Britney Spears story?
As a filmmaker who makes films about women, Britney Spears is one of the big stories. She’s an icon and a celebrated person but ended up somehow having the same legal rights as a minor. It was just a pervasive mystery of what happened to this really good person. So I very naively was like, “Well, maybe I can figure it out.” I called an industry insider at the beginning, and the person was like, “Yeah, good luck getting anyone to talk. It’s not gonna fly. It’s this story that nobody talks about.”