It was April of 2019, and singer/songwriter Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O'Connell (you know her as Billie Eilish) was making her Coachella debut. At the age of 17. The week after her first album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts. And as she prepared to launch "When the Party's Over" into the welcoming arms of tens of thousands of festival fans, one of the biggest stars on the pop planet had one small request.
"I just want us all to be in the moment with this song," she said. "This is happening right now, and this is crazy."
This is happening right now, and this is crazy. In addition to summing up that wild moment in what would become an even wilder year, that stunned sentence is also a pretty good synopsis of the new Apple TV+ documentary "Billie Eilish: The World's a Little Blurry."
Director R.J. Cutler ("Belushi," "The September Issue") gives us a fly-on-the-wall look at the two action-packed years that started with Eilish and her collaborator brother, Finneas O'Connell, pushing to finish the album and ended with the sibling duo sweeping the 2020 Grammy Awards.
From the big professional triumphs (world tours, TV appearances, zillions of Spotify streams) to the personal milestones (getting her driver's license, breaking up with her boyfriend, meeting Justin Bieber), Cutler and his cameras are there for all of the big moments as they are happening. And yes, it's all a little crazy.
At 140 minutes, the film has a few too many moments of all sizes. But Eilish is such great company, she helps Cutler pull it off. Even if your high school journal did not contain the raw materials for a million-selling album, this film about a pop prodigy who is also a smart, moody, goofy and passionate teenager will send you right back to that time when everything matters, nothing makes sense and no one understands you but your friends.
The film opens with a brief clip from 2015, when Eilish's recording of O'Connell's dreamy ballad "Ocean Eyes" was released on the SoundCloud music-sharing platform and became an immediate streaming hit. Fast-forward three years, and the siblings are toggling between performing before increasingly passionate crowds and grinding out songs with a record company deadline breathing down their necks.
When she is performing for the fans who already know many of the songs that will be on the album, Eilish is a ball of rock-star energy who can be as vulnerable as your best friend on her worst day. It is a real gift.
"I don't think of them as fans, ever," she says. "They're not my fans. They're like a part of me."
And when she is working on songs with O'Connell (who is four years older), Eilish is one half of a mind-melding team capable of turning keyboard noodlings and cellphone notes into songs that strike a universal chord while still sounding like no one else.
Watching them kick around the half-formed song that will become the Grammy-winning "Bad Guy" or perform an early version of "My Strange Addiction" to a few visiting record company dudes ("Why didn't they clap?" O'Connell wonders, half in jest) is pure music-nerd gold. These moments are also a great glimpse into the duo's creative chemistry and sibling dynamic. Eilish frets about deadlines and struggles with self-doubt ("I can't sound good because I'm not good"), while O'Connell stays calm and encouraging while carrying on with the business of writing songs with someone who says she hates writing songs.
"I feel like I've been told to write a hit," he says wearily at one point. "But I've been told to not tell Billie that we have to write a hit."
But they do write a hit. In fact, they write several. And before we know it, Interscope Records is celebrating the completion of the "When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?" album by giving Eilish her dream car (a matte black Dodge Charger), even though she can't drive it on her own yet.
Then the siblings and their band are off on an exhausting world tour that will find the singer communing with deliriously happy fans (Eilish is a hugger) and singing songs about death and heartbreak and dangerous love in a smoky croon that lands like a comforting weighted blanket on the people who most need to hear it.
In keeping with the insular spirit of an artist who recorded her Grammy-sweeping album with her brother in his childhood bedroom, Cutler rarely strays outside of Billie's bubble and the tight family circle of Eilish, O'Connell and their supportive parents. The lack of outside voices and big-picture perspective makes the film feel claustrophobic at times, but Eilish is such a relatable bundle of raw nerves and high spirits, you won't mind the confined quarters.
And thanks to Cutler's access, we are there for the highs and the lows and everything in between.
We are there when Eilish and O'Connell write the theme for the next James Bond movie and when she sprains her ankle onstage. We are there when the physical demands of the tour aggravate Eilish's Tourette's syndrome tics and her aggressive onstage dancing gives her shin splints. We are there when her dubious but resigned dad watches her take the Charger out for her first solo drive and when her mom wakes her up with news that she has been nominated for a slew of Grammys.
Perhaps best of all, we are there as a young artist begins to come into her own.
After watching Britney Spears get swallowed up by fame in the recent FX documentary "Framing Britney Spears," it is heartening to see Eilish stick up for herself when an after-show meet and greet goes awry. We see her directing her own videos and refining the style (baggy hip-hop clothes, sneakers, major jewelry) that is very much hers. We see her flipping slowly through the painful entries in an old journal and recognizing how far she's come.
And on the day of the Grammy nominations, we see Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O'Connell going for a drive and reveling in her blessings. The big, the small and the crazy.
"I'm nominated for six Grammys. I have my dream car. I had doughnuts last night," she says. "Life is good."
"Billie Eilish: The World's a Little Blurry" is streaming on Apple TV+.
(Karla Peterson is a columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune.)
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