Netflix’s ‘Britney vs. Spears’ is honest, harrowing dive into confining conservatorship

photo of Britney Spears
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Grade: 4.0/5.0

After 13 years of stifled life under conservatorships of Britney Spears’ person and estate, Britney is almost free.

Filmmaker Erin Lee Carr and journalist Jenny Eliscu guide viewers through Spears’ path to freedom in Netflix’s documentary “Britney vs. Spears,” a project the pair began in 2019. Featuring interviews from the celebrity’s “inner circle” throughout her career, newly unredacted legal documents and a layout of relevant characters akin to an evidence board, the documentary provides a stark, emotionally honest look into the horrors of Spears’ conservatorship through lenses of power and control — power and control over Spears’ celebrity, influence and the musician herself.

After opening with cheers of “Britney! Britney!” from a concert crowd with Spears grinning from ear to ear, Carr describes the intense limits of Spears’ conservatorship — managed by her father, Jamie Spears — as well as the stunning sums of cash that Spears earned for those controlling her. By interviewing the dozens of people drawn into the orbit of the massively lucrative Spears conspiracy, Carr’s narration elucidates just how confining and demeaning the conservatorship was.

The line between antagonist and protagonist is blurred through Carr and Eliscu’s discussions about the various players coming in and out of Spears’ life. The documentary searches for where to place blame for Spears’ struggles, emphasizing the media as a central force. As Spears floundered in her personal life amid a custody battle for her children, the media slammed her new love interest and source of support, paparazzo Adnan Ghalib. In a voiceover, Ghalib sadly notes how “simple and easy” it was for the tabloids to point their fingers and say, “He’s the bad guy.”

They also compound evidence against Jamie Spears and Spears’ court-appointed lawyer, Sam Ingham, framing them as conspirators. Well-organized with coherent commentary, the documentary’s interviews flip the predominant narrative of each phase of Spears’ life, guiding the viewer to feel sympathy for Spears.

Notably, the documentary steers away from the popular, dehumanizing images of Spears that populated headlines in the late 2000s. Instead, viewers are shown waves of paparazzi on foot, chasing an ambulance containing Spears; fleets of paparazzi vehicles race in recurring car chases to capture an ever-valuable photograph of Spears. Carr emphasizes how the media pre-conservatorship focused not on Spears’ continually chart-smashing music, but on revealing the most intimate parts of her life.

Living without familial trust under escalating media pressure and diminishing privacy, all Spears wanted was to “feel free,” describes Spears’ friend, Andrew Gallery. Every single interviewee repeats the same thought: Britney is suffering. The degree of that suffering is shockingly emotional, with many conversations ending in tears.

At times, the sheer scope of “Britney vs. Spears” is disorienting. Cataloging the major events of 2008-2009 seems to take ages, while 2013-2018 are largely summarized through text floating on the screen. However, the documentary still stands out among the deluge of other Spears-related content through the legal documents provided to the filmmakers by an anonymous source. These documents, whose jargon is helpfully deconstructed by Carr and Eliscu, starkly contrast the public claims of the Spears conservatorship — one document even bases the conservatorship on the claim that Spears has dementia. Financial statements, business transactions and other never-before-seen documents highlighted by Carr and Eliscu illuminate the shady nature of the conservatorship.

Carr and Eliscu’s impressive collaboration in the documentary also stands out. Together, they discuss how mismatched the conservatorship’s public claims were, dissecting court documents and prompting realizations for viewers. Additionally, as fans of Spears, the two draw on their fervor to offer the documentary a more intimate feel.

Before concluding with immediate updates about the conservatorship, the documentary plays gripping audio of Spears’ testimony at her most recent conservatorship hearing. Spears condemns those pulling the strings of her conservatorship, her family members and the state of California for their alleged abuse and negligence — while this is all supported by the vast array of evidence Carr and Eliscu present, it is most powerful coming from Spears herself.

By the end of the documentary, viewers are left wholeheartedly believing Britney should be freed — free to create, free to be with her children and free to be Britney.

Contact Katherine Shok at [email protected].