Content warning: drug addiction, abuse, sexual assault/violence and eating disorders
“Dancing with the Devil” begins like every other music documentary — with a concert montage. A swooping aerial shot captures fans packed together like a living, moving carpet at a 2018 concert in Portugal. The camera cuts to a behind-the-scenes look at our superstar, decked out in smoldering makeup and a sleek outfit. Chaos crescendos backstage as a frantic team fusses with her hair and ferries her around in a golf cart. Yet, everyone’s hard work pays off when powerhouse Demi Lovato finally takes the stage.
When we first see Lovato, she’s made it. Her mom even praises the performance over the phone and says, “It’s only going to get better from here.” Her words, however, are haunted by a chilling subtitle revealing that their conversation occurred one month before Lovato’s near-fatal overdose.
Directed by Michael Ratner, “Dancing with the Devil” premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival, and it’s set to be released on YouTube in four episodes starting March 23. Pop star documentaries often come across as an airbrushed lament about the woes of fame and isolation — think: “Shawn Mendes: In Wonder” and “Ariana Grande: Excuse Me, I Love You.” “Dancing with the Devil” puts these hollow, idle stories to shame.
The documentary intends to “set the record straight,” and Lovato captains the narrative formidably, bringing disarming honesty to recall the last three years of her life and the moment when she nearly lost it. “Dancing with the Devil” backpedals even further beyond that fateful July night, reframing Lovato’s celebrity origin story and illuminating the knotted family troubles that bubbled beneath the surface.
Growing up as an actor, Lovato found fame as a Disney Channel star, and stardom transformed Lovato into her family’s provider. Though no blame is assigned firmly enough to vilify any one person, it’s clear that Lovato endured immense pressure from various personal and professional authority figures in her life; she was starved of control. “Dancing with the Devil” emphasizes how this lack of autonomy became a wrecking ball that crashed Lovato from one dangerous situation to the next. Over the years, it created a dire feedback loop: As Lovato’s health grew worse, the leash grew tighter.
On the night of July 24, 2018, Lovato smoked heroin laced with fentanyl, and the next morning her limp body was discovered in her room. “She should be dead,” said her close friend Matthew Scott Montgomery in an interview, “Like, 100%.”
The documentary reconstructs Lovato’s overdose through the vivid memories of her friends, family and employees. The precarity of Lovato’s life is horrifying to relive, and her sister shares a wrenching moment when Lovato didn’t recognize her — the overdose had made her legally blind. (Within two months, Lovato regained enough of her sight to read a book, but she can no longer drive.)
While the overdose is the narrative’s centerpiece, the documentary explores the events precipitating it, as well as the aftermath. Lovato takes “Dancing with the Devil” as a platform to unearth her enduring struggles with eating disorders and sexual assault. Unfortunately, the film’s direction sometimes disappoints Lovato’s vulnerability. Loose ends are left frayed, such as what happened to Lovato’s drug dealer or the unnamed predator who raped Lovato while they worked for Disney Channel.
Lovato is always an open book, but the documentary is too quick to flip to the next chapter of her life before the ink on the preceding pages has a chance to dry. In these instances, the film compromises its purported purpose, delivering a redacted record rather than a “straightened” one.
The documentary’s ending feels precarious as well. Today, Lovato is not wholly sober, consuming weed and alcohol in moderation. It’s impossible not to beam with pride at the pop star’s growth and rehabilitation, but the film seems skeptical that it will last — Lovato is indisputably strong, but she is also a persuasive secret-keeper who’s concealed her spiraling addiction before. The documentary repeatedly insists that recovery looks different on every addict, but it is Sir Elton John — appearing in the documentary as a fan — who scratches the movie’s itching suspicion when he bluntly says: “Moderation doesn’t work. You either do it, or you don’t.”
At the same time, quarantine has proven to be a profoundly restorative period for Lovato. When we leave the singer, her future is promising: She’s got an album in the works and her self-love is in bloom. Though “Dancing with the Devil” could benefit from additional episodes, Lovato shines through the darkness of her past. She’s authentic, amazing and all-too-easy to root for.