SXSW 2021: Demi Lovato: Dancing with the Devil

The only good news about the new Demi Lovato documentary is that she is so willing to do these things, that a course corrective documentary may well be issued within the following years or weeks. Her early recovery story plays out as a skeezy marketing promotion for the singer’s new album. What’s evident, and has never been questioned, is her immense wealth of talent and propensity for being open about herself to others, in a way that defines her own narrative. Only Demi Lovato defines Demi Lovato.

It’s happened time and time again, that Demi Lovato has found herself and upon first impulse, creates a broad statement to the public about what is going on. She is a great divulger of her own information. In 2012, Demi Lovato: Stay Strong highlighted the star’s battle with an eating disorder and her inspiring recovery from addiction. In 2017, coinciding with the release of her album Tell Me You Love Me, Demi Lovato: Simply Complicated then released to YouTube, wherein she admits that she was on cocaine during those initial interviews about her sobriety. Soon after, another documentary began filming. Then she suffered a tragic overdose and that whole project was scrapped. Now, she is releasing Demi Lovato: Dancing with the Devil, once again coinciding with the release of a new album.

This pattern of events, while not indicating that this isn’t a story from the heart that ought to be shared, suggests (god willing) that there will be more documentaries to come. Hopefully one day there is a definitive document: Demi Lovato: The Final Story; or perhaps, Demi Lovato: I Promise to Stop Making Documentaries About Myself Now.

I’m a person in longterm recovery. I have documented my own story here. I truly understand the impulse. I want to someday write a book about my month-long coma, on that very same equipment Demi Lovato had after her overdose. What has always occurred to me, and has caused me to demur when always asked why I have not been writing it, is the object of critical distance.

Because I have been in the rooms of recovery for long enough, I understand deeply and personally how we, as addicts, shape our stories. I’ve seen how different they are from day-one to year-three. I have come to understand myself as I never knew myself. As a great friend in recovery once said, David of Michelangelo was not created by building an idea of the perfect sculpture. It was created by chipping away everything that was not the sculpture. And so, as I was advised, that is also my approach to recovery. We chip away all of the bullshit and eventually the real Calvin will someday emerge. The real Demi Lovato will someday emerge. And then she will make a great documentary to celebrate her newly sculpted self.

This isn’t the one. The problem is not her problem. Or perhaps it is. It’s about the questions that are being asked of her and her friends. Each appears to show up, totally willing to be vulnerable and set all the facts straight, to get right the truest account of the story that they might have to offer. Nothing like that really happens. They do try at it. With all due respect to all the subjects of the documentary, none of the questions are particularly good or challenging. They are not pressed on anything they say. When it is presented like that, it reeks of a publicity tour, and not an open and honest documentary about recovery.

There is also the matter of how it has been shaped. The way that YouTube has chipped away at the story to create their own Demi of Michelangelo. It will be broken into episodes for the YouTube release. At SXSW it was not broken into episodes as it was premiered to us and that seemed to make more logical sense (credits and episode intros aside). There is not quite enough new information here to sustain that kind of multiple episode run. It’s all out there if you want to do a Google search about it. The documentary probably won’t offer any insight that was not already in the news. What’s the hook between episodes? There truly isn’t one, besides wanting to see more of Lovato’s winning smile and easy charm on camera. She is continually documented for several reasons but best of all: she is delightful to watch.

It seems far too early for the star to have any reflection whatsoever. After her last incident, she had begun to emerge back into the spotlight. She sang the most stunning rendition of the US National Anthem. It may be the only time I was glad to hear it those last four years. That is the energy of Demi Lovato. Why we will continue to absorb her self-reflections and new documentaries. Why this third attempt is also one of the SXSW premiers that feels like an event. We all just want her to win.

So when she sets up the documentary with one direction, like it will contain such sweeping life changes, and the new Lovato, as we’ve never seen her, we want to believe her. When the pandemic isolates her newly reinvigorated career and she decides to enter lockdown with her parents and a new boyfriend they’ve never met, we worry a little bit. When that relationship, that has just developed over the course of the documentary, crashes and ends, we are not surprised, but remain sad. When she goes on the Marijuana Maintenance plan (as old-timers in the meetings call it), we could not possibly be surprised, but may worry that when the quarantine ends and the pressures of life become real again, that all bets are off. When Elton John comes on and warns about that very decision, we only want to listen to his wisdom, and hope for the best. The ever-changing course of it all has become the status quo of the performer. Whatever happens, life is fluid and ever-changing, she tells us at the end, and so is she.

Why then would anyone make this documentary now? Demi Lovato almost needs a devoted reality TV series. To keep up with her ever-shifting ideas and presence. There are some lovely changes to experience here. She comes out as Queer. She has given up the hard drugs. She is saying all the right things. The way us addicts do in early recovery. It all amounts to squat for the viewer. Nothing is pressed or investigated. Dancing with the Devil may investigate, at the most basic level, the star’s transition toward a Queer identity and a slightly-more-sober-eyed way of life, but it does not process what any of that means. It all just happens in front of us and is taken at face value. Some stars require many visits to rehab to really get clean. For Demi Lovato, it may require many documentaries. Whatever it takes for Demi Lovato to chip away the crud of addiction and become the truest version of herself, it’s worth doing, whether or not every documentary along the way was, or not.


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