The Brutal Audacity of Demi Lovato

Illustration for article titled The Brutal Audacity of Demi Lovato
Image: OBB Media/YouTube

“I’m just going to say it all and if we don’t want to use it, we can take it out,” declares singer-songwriter Demi Lovato toward the beginning of Michael D. Ratner’s limited documentary series Demi Lovato: Dancing with the Devil. The project, which focuses on her 2018 overdose, goes out of its way to underline candor as its utmost priority. The stated desire to show “the real me” of a rock doc’s subject, to portray the “true” story in a medium whose authorized subjectivity all but ensures paradox, is nothing new. Accordingly, the rock doc is a medium that consistently fails its stated aim.

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But Dancing with the Devil is a different beast, and not just because it takes pains to telegraph how the material exceeds its subjects’ expectations. “Are we talking about heroin? Are we doing that?” asks Lovato’s good friend Matthew Scott Montgomery of his interviewer at one point. Indeed, we are. Rarely is a contemporary documentary with a pop star at its center so invested in going there as Dancing with the Devil is, and even more rarely does it deliver to the degree that this four-part YouTube Originals production does. (The first two installments dropped Tuesday; the remaining two will be released in the two weeks that follow. All together, it’s about 90 minutes of material, enough to make a feature-length documentary.)

Woven into the text is what this could have been: A fairly standard concert film that was shot during Lovato’s 2018 Don’t Tell Me You Love Me world tour. In Dancing, Lovato reflects on that project, which was abandoned in the wake of her July 24, 2018, overdose. She wouldn’t let production know what was going on behind closed doors. Lovato’s friend/former sober companion Sirah describes the endeavor as “disingenuous.”

The tour doc, in other words, would have been yet another bland celebrity bio—the kind that ends up showing more of the same, a highly curated, distorted portrait that ports one’s social media presence into the medium of film. Low-stakes, low-yield entries from Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, and Paris Hilton typify the dilution of what used to be a cutting-edge manner of coloring in an already boldly outlined public profile (the height of the genre is Alek Keshishian’s 1991 Madonna: Truth or Dare, and the Maysles brothers’ 1970 profile of the Rolling Stones, Gimme Shelter, is not far behind). What was once cinema is too often a painstaking audio-visual press release for an era where fear of being misunderstood prevents many from saying something, anything of consequence.

Lovato had been sober for six years when she relapsed on her 2018 tour. Wine led to drugs, which led to harder drugs: By the time she overdosed she had taken up crack and heroin. Her dealer, she said, sexually assaulted her the night of her overdose.“I was literally left for dead after he had taken advantage of me,” she says, avoiding the use of the word “rape.”

Devil recounts the story of Lovato’s OD in exacting detail. She says that as a result she had three strokes, a heart attack, and contracted pneumonia. When she came to in the hospital, she was legally blind and says she still has vision issues as a result of the damage her OD did to her brain. Before she was revived she turned blue. Her assistant at the time, Jordan Jackson, found her unresponsive but feared she’d get in trouble if she called 911. She did it anyway and saved Lovato’s life.

Without placing blame, Devil contextualizes Lovato’s myriad battles. She was estranged from her dad, who was also an alcoholic, a drug user, and an abuser. The beauty pageants she participated in as child “completely damaged” her self-esteem, she reports. She cut herself and developed an eating disorder—her bulimia was so bad at one point, she says, she vomited blood. Sobriety was foisted on her at 18 by her team, she recalls—she finally rebelled.

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A document that prioritizes candor to this degree is the perfect vehicle for Lovato, whose matter-of-factness can be utterly arresting, as when she says dryly to the camera, “I’ve had my fair share of sexual trauma throughout childhood [and] teenage years.” She reports that she lost her virginity via rape at 15 and about a month later, had consensual sex with her rapist in a bid to wrestle back power. She did the same with her dealer—shortly after her incredibly public overdose, she invited him back over to have (this time consensual) sex and get high. “I wanted to rewrite his choice of violating me. I wanted it to be my choice,” she reflects.

This is hardly an easy pill to swallow and the great courage Lovato displays here is not merely in describing her survival but the seemingly counterintuitive means she employed to ensure it. “Textbook trauma reenactments,” is how she categorizes her behavior. She takes a clear risk in being judged for what might come across as poor decisions, giving fodder for the compassion-free to doubt her trauma.

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The heaviness and complexity of her story, though, only serves it. She explains her surprise at her overdose—she thought she was being safe by smoking what turned out to be fentanyl. “I am not saying that I have not used needles, but that night I wasn’t injecting it, I was smoking it,” she says, risking the stigma of a hardcore, injecting drug user. She accepts accountability for shunning her dad, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. While she had built her public profile in part on being an advocate for mental illness, she didn’t extend her father the same compassion that she was preaching. She discusses her short engagement toward the beginning of lockdown to a guy she barely knew—a self-own if ever there were, a clear indication of the folly that results from living one’s life so publicly. (When you make impulsive decisions that you announce to the world, you have to walk them back when they don’t pan out.)

Most damning, Lovato admits that her self-centeredness during the start of her most recent recovery prevented her from understanding how her addiction affected others. Possibly no one suffered more severe consequences than Dani Vitale, Lovato’s backup dancer and choreographer whose birthday party the star attended the night before her overdose. Lovato is very careful to describe how well she hid her drug habit from her friends and to emphasize that Vitale did not promote or engage in drug use with Lovato. Nonetheless, Vitale was blamed for Lovato’s OD, and says she received thousands of harassing messages on a daily basis, some death threats. (The harassment lasted over a year, according to Vitale.) As a result, Vitale lost work and was followed by TMZ-employed paparazzi. Lovato openly regrets how long it took her to exonerate her friend and collaborator.

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The weird thing about Dancing with the Devil is the more Lovato talked, the less I was convinced that I’d want to spend any time with her, while at the same, the more I admired her audacity. It is a rare thing indeed to be confronted with a superstar who owns up to their flaws, who risks being taken as anything less than a shining pillar of society. In the film, the more she risks being interpreted as a shitty person, the better she comes off.

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Dancing is not entirely devoid of the wafting stench of clandestine advertorial. It’s named after a song on her new album that we see footage of her recording toward the end of the series, which positions this entire exercise in bare truth telling as a teaser for Lovato’s next era. Too many candid scenes of her hanging out with her friends involve them solely discussing Lovato (and mostly just lavishing her with compliments). Obviously, the focus of this project is her so Dancing is one large montage of footage of people talking about Lovato, even when they’re alongside her. Nonetheless, these candid moments give a sense of lopsided interactions and possibly lopsided relationships. But those are, perhaps, telling in themselves and there’s little room for symmetry here anyway.

Dancing with the Devil is not cinema—it’s largely comprised of talking-head footage of Lovato and her inner circle that could have easily been translated into a written oral history of her overdose. But its stakes are dangerously high. Lovato’s audacity for telling a messy story and owning her choices and self-centeredness is practically unsurpassed. Taken with Kid 90, Soleil Moon Frye’s recent Hulu doc predominantly comprised of footage she shot as a teen in the ‘90s hanging out with other celebrity teens in which drug use, shit talking, and sex abounds, there is a strong argument to be made that we are entering an era of celebrity neorealism. Fans of this style of filmmaking will be lucky if other stars realize the bar that Lovato’s and Frye’s docs have set in sheer accountability and candor, and attempt to outdo it. Auto-hagiography will continue to be a temptation for all who live publicly; Lovato models just how daring resistance to this modern convention can look.

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Devil presents a thorny narrative that never quite goes the way it’s supposed to. “My MeToo story is me telling that someone did this to me and they never got in trouble for it,” says Lovato of her rape at 15. “They never got taken out of the movie they were in.” Lovato seems to have everything someone her age could wish for—fame, wealth, loyal family and friends—except for the solace of a predictable story. She boldly hypothesizes that her own bipolar diagnosis was, in fact, a misdiagnosis that she never bothered to correct publicly despite (or maybe because of) her role as a mental-health advocate. She shockingly, and really with no obligation, admits toward the end of Dancing that she is, after all that, not totally sober today—she still drinks and uses marijuana. This leads to a wide-ranging Greek chorus of friends and associates weighing in on her decision to go back to using, including interviews from her disapproving manager, Scooter Braun, and Elton John, who is sober. John calls into the camera, “Moderation doesn’t work. Sorry!”

Demi Lovato: Dancing with the Devil’s most audacious move is to allow its superstar subject to be wrong. She’s still learning, she still might make mistakes. She’s young! There is strong suggestion that part of her learning process involves making said mistakes, but to what extent is her education actually taking? Stay tuned to find out.

Some Pig. Terrific. Radiant. Humble.

DISCUSSION

south-of-heaven
South of Heaven

John calls into the camera, “Moderation doesn’t work. Sorry!”

This is why I hate the dogmatic 12 step lifestyle. “Don’t smoke pot, don’t take that suboxone, that’s cheating!!! It isn’t true sobriety!” Fuck off. Support groups are incredibly helpful in getting people out of the house and talking to others sharing their experiences, but holy shit, Cancer Survivors Anonymous or whatever it’s called doesn’t DISCOURAGE CHEMOTHERAPY. Absolute idiocy.

I know my saying this is going to get me some blowback. I don’t care. And I’m not saying AA can’t be useful as a single tool in a large toolbox, but that’s not how it’s implemented either by groups or by courts. And it’s killing addicts.