What We Learned From The Flurry Of New Britney Spears Documentaries

Ahead of Wednesday's court hearing in the conservatorship case, Hulu, Netflix and CNN all have documentaries about the pop star.

“I wasn’t good. I was great.”

It’s a line I keep thinking about from the more than 20 minutes Britney Spears spoke by phone during a court hearing on June 23. The audio is one of the rare times she has talked publicly about the 13-year court-ordered conservatorship orchestrated by her father, Jamie.

As if we needed to be reminded of how great and influential of a performer Britney Spears was — and is. But we did because of how long she hasn’t been able to control her own narrative. In February, the documentary “Framing Britney Spears,” from The New York Times, FX and Hulu, brought more public attention to both the conservatorship and the years of sexist and exploitative media coverage that came to define her public image. It also started to illuminate the broader issue of conservatorships and the ways these arrangements can exploit the people they are aimed to protect.

In the months since, the legal developments in Spears’s case have accelerated. For the first time, she got to choose her own lawyer, Mathew Rosengart. There will be another major turning point on Wednesday, when Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Brenda Penny will take up two major questions: whether her father will be removed as head of the conservatorship and/or if the 13-year conservatorship will finally come to an end.

Ahead of Wednesday’s court hearing, three new documentaries and specials are out, each showing how stringent the conservatorship has been and the extent to which Jamie Spears and his associates controlled all of Britney’s communications and interactions. The documentaries can help catch people up before this potentially momentous news day. Yet the films are also limited in what they can achieve. The details of the conservatorship are difficult to depict visually, and nothing in the entire saga has been as powerful as hearing Britney Spears’s own testimony.

Deciding whether to watch each documentary depends on how much you want to know or don’t know already. “Controlling Britney Spears,” which premiered Friday on Hulu, has the most specific focus of the three as a follow-up to “Framing Britney Spears.” It’s probably best for anyone who has been following the developments in Spears’s conservatorship case with some level of specificity. The new installment peels back the curtain on the mechanics of the conservatorship. Among its most alarming revelations: Alex Vlasov, a former employee of the security firm hired by Jamie, discusses the extent to which the firm was tasked with surveilling Britney’s phone (when she was allowed to have one, which wasn’t always the case). And Vlasov says the security firm installed a recording device in her bedroom.

Elsewhere in the documentary, Spears’s longtime assistant and confidant Felicia Culotta and head of wardrobe Tish Yates talk about how they and other people close to Spears were basically torn away from her. The conservatorship meant that every interaction Spears had with virtually anyone was strictly monitored, they said. Many people who interacted with Spears could sense something wrong was going on and how lonely she was without a support system and people whom she could trust, according to the documentary and other accounts of these events. But as Dan George, who managed Spears’s “Circus” concert tour in 2008 and 2009, says in the documentary, “The first rule of the conservatorship is that you don’t talk about the conservatorship.”

As a prime-time special that aired Sunday, CNN’s “Toxic: Britney Spears’ Battle for Freedom” is understandably geared toward a more general audience. A lot of it is about the larger media context behind the conservatorship, like the intense focus of the paparazzi and the way Spears was demonized in pop culture and media, especially during her mental breakdown in 2007 and 2008. None of this is news for anyone who followed pop culture in the late ’90s and early 2000s and/or has been following the conservatorship case. But there are some interesting perspectives here. Rosie O’Donnell talks about how she became close to Spears through interviewing her over the years and, like many people who once knew her, has unsuccessfully tried to reach her. Actor Mischa Barton talks about the costs of fame and being under a public microscope. Like Spears, “The O.C.” star rose to fame as a teen and had every misstep in her early adulthood heavily and often unfairly scrutinized.

George is also featured in this special, discussing how as tour manager he witnessed that every detail and condition in Spears’s life had to go through her father and his associates. For example, Spears was only allowed to “read Christian books,” and her “use of a phone was very tightly controlled,” he says.

Premiering Tuesday, the Netflix documentary “Britney vs. Spears” similarly has a more broad lens. However, with a longer runtime, it delves deeper into how the conservatorship came to be. At the beginning of the documentary, director Erin Lee Carr explains that the film project had been in the works for two years, during which the shape and focus of the documentary changed.

There are documents and interviews from some of the people who knew Spears during the frenzy of events that led her father and his associates to swiftly impose the conservatorship in 2008. Throughout that time, Spears was constantly denied opportunities to stop it or gain more control over the arrangement, according to some of the records.

The documentary compares the timeline of what was happening in her career to what was happening with her conservatorship, showing how much her father, his associates and her lawyers stood to gain monetarily from strictly controlling her every move and packing her schedule with nonstop performances. It lays bare the extremely questionable justification for the prolonged duration of the conservatorship, since conservatorships are typically designed for people who cannot provide for themselves. By contrast, Spears was hard at work and earning millions of dollars for everyone around her.

Though each of these documentaries is informative to varying degrees, it’s tough for them to be fully engaging. Some of the most damning revelations and details about the inner workings of the conservatorship come from written sources, like court filings, text messages and emails. A lot of the new developments are a procedural story that’s hard to show aurally and visually.

That’s why that moment the world finally got to hear Spears herself endures. Each of the documentaries uses excerpts from the court audio, and several of the subjects talk about how powerful her testimony was.

“It was surreal,” Leanne Simmons, one of the leaders of the Free Britney movement, says in the CNN special, when asked what it was like hearing Spears in her own words. “It was so awful to have to hear it. It was vindicating because we knew that was the truth. But part of me wished we were wrong and that she wasn’t suffering the way she has been.”

Britney Spears performing at her Las Vegas residency in 2016.
Britney Spears performing at her Las Vegas residency in 2016.
Denise Truscello/BSLV/Getty Images for Brandcasting Inc.

In “Controlling Britney Spears,” Vlasov describes how he and other employees at the firm were often uneasy about the intent and purpose of the surveillance but had to do as they were told. He says it was only when Spears spoke at the June 23 hearing, expressing “the complete opposite of what we’ve always been told, working there,” that he finally realized he needed to talk about what he witnessed.

“It makes no sense whatsoever for the state of California to sit back and literally watch me with their own two eyes make a living for so many people and pay so many people… and be told I’m not good enough,” Spears said on June 23. “But I’m great at what I do.”

I had forgotten how striking and breathtaking Spears’s testimony had been until I heard the audio again in these documentaries. Every time, the sound of her own voice describing her desperation, despondency, exhaustion, fear and anger stops me in my tracks, more than any other interview or document ever could.