2019 American Music Awards

Too Many Pieces Missing in Lifetime's Britney Spears Biopic: Critic's Take

Jenna Berman/Lifetime
Natasha Bassett playing Britney Spears in the upcoming Lifetime documentary, "Britney Ever After."

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Britney Ever After, the unsanctioned Britney Spears biopic that premiered Saturday night (Feb. 18) on Lifetime, is where it chooses to begin.

Told largely in flashback -- the movie jumps around in time like a French New Wave film -- through the framing of a 2007 documentary interview, Britney Ever After launches into its subject's life story in 1998, after she's released her first single, and as she's checking out her first tour bus before hitting the road with *NSYNC. There's no pre-fame Britney to be found -- no Louisiana Britney, no Mickey Mouse Club Britney, no Lou Pearlman Britney -- and we even meet Justin Timberlake in the first five minutes. "We've only got two hours," the movie seems to be saying, "and we've got a lot to get through."

Fair enough. Undoubtedly, few celebrities in any walk of life have lived as dramatic a public life over the last two decades as Britney Spears, whose string of iconic pop hits, music videos and live performances is matched only by her litany of infamous tabloid headlines, paparazzi photos and media controversies. As fun as it would've been to see early Britney Jean at her countriest and least-disillusioned, Britney has of course been Miss American Dream since she was 17, so we're not missing that much of her saga by starting it in the TRL years. Unfortunately, despite keeping the movie's focus to the parts of Spears' life that we already know best, it's still hard not to feel like there's not quite enough of Britney on-screen; a few too many Scene Missing cards at pivotal moments of her story. 

Of course, the movie's issues can largely be tied back to its soundtrack. In the grand tradition of ultra-unauthorized Lifetime biopics, the artist's original catalog is firmly off-limits, so the only songs Britney can be heard performing are her covers of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" and "I Love Rock 'n' Roll," in arrangements far more faithful to their originals than Spears' renditions actually were. That's forgivable, but the movie doesn't present a convincing workaround.

The number of Britney songs even mentioned can be counted on one hand -- "We don't really need to talk about 'Baby One More Time' do we?' Brit asks at one point in the frame-doc, to which the answer is apparently, guess not -- while the tunes that do provide the movie's backing of are such anonymous, monochromatic electro-pop that it's insulting to Spears' vivacious and ever-evolving discography to hear them presented as her musical stand-ins.

One solution to this problem might've been to relive the biggest rushes of Britney's pop life through her most memorable MTV moments, which are just as big a part of her story as her blockbuster-selling albums and smash radio singles. And to Britney Ever After's credit, there are some giddy references to her unforgettable Video Music Awards cameos over the years -- Wade Robson teaching Britney how to handle the "I'm a Slave 4 U" python in rehearsals for the 2001 VMAs, Britney watching the playback in horror after her disastrous performance in 2007, and so on. But there's very little of her actually performing on stage, and zero of her music videos: Can't show the finished products, of course, but how hard would it have been to give us a few behind-the-scenes flashes of Schoolgirl Britney, Devilish Britney, Flight Attendant Britney?

The problem with all of this isn't just that fans are deprived of key moments in the pop star's iconography, but that the movie tries to present a rise-and-fall story without much of a reason for the rise. Put simply, we don't get to see Britney be great. Aside from a bizarre second-act sequence in which Spears and Timberlake essentially have a dramatic dance-off in a nightclub, we never even get to see Britney's moves, which were mesmeric at her peak. Instead, we just get a whole lot of the fall: Brit giving her heart to the wrong dudes, Brit melting down in public, Brit going to rehab. That's all fun too, of course -- when a shaved-head Britney reaches into her car while fending off the paparazzi, and you know exactly what weapon she's gonna chose to defend herself with, the trashy thrill is undeniable -- but without much of a high to drop from, the lows don't thud like they should.

If there's one thing that still comes close to making Britney Ever After work, it's the lead performance of actress Natasha Bassett. Despite being a little too slight of build to convincingly match the pop star's physicality, the 24-year-old actress absolutely brings Britney to life, nailing her singular mix of sweetness and raunch, naivete and self-awareness, innocence and intelligence. She plays Spears as the victim, but not as a patsy or a puppet, and while she doesn't shy away from the big moments, it's the little moments -- Brit gasping after sharing a parking-lot kiss with Timberlake, or laughing so hard she can't breathe after waking up to find herself eloped with Jason Alexander -- that prove the most electric.

In general, Bassett's early scenes with JT (played with perfect "bomb diggity"-dropping Disney swag by Nathan Keyes) are the movie's most winning. Though they take needless detours into a stolen sex-tape subplot (which probably never happened) and a big fight that ends with Spears peacocking, “I’m not the one slipping in the charts!" (which, if it ever happened, was certainly never accurate), the duo's puppy-love interactions are corny and horny and endearingly believable. Consequently, when the movie posits that Britney's tailspin at the 2007 VMAs was mostly due to an already-nervous Spears having her brain scrambled by an unexpected backstage visit from Justin, it feels unlikely, but not impossible. (By comparison, the K-Fed era of Brit's story falls disappointingly flat, with actor Clayton Chitty lacking a certain popozao.)

Bassett's inspired performance threatens to make Britney Ever After better than it has any right to be, and the movie's back-and-forth chronology actually works as a pretty good build to Spears' calamitous 2007 (and subsequent mostly-triumphant comeback). With a little additional love and ingenuity applied to its subject's years on top, the movie could've been compulsory cable viewing for all pop fans who grew up thinking Britney and Justin appearing at the 2001 American Music Awards in matching denim outfits as the apex of 21st-century romance and pop culture. As is, the Brit faithful are gonna be left by Lifetime's biopic with the same two-word demand that defined so much of the star's story: Gimme more.

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