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Billie Eilish Relearns Her Hometown and Herself in Disney+ Film 'Happier Than Ever: A Love Letter to Los Angeles'

Billie Eilish
Kelia Anne MacCluskey*

Billie Eilish

In the opening moments of the Disney+ concert film Happier Than Ever: A Love Letter to Los Angeles, we find superstar Billie Eilish alone in a recording studio. She approaches an old-school ribbon mic and takes a breath, only to let out a defeated sigh.  

Except that it’s not quite Eilish but an animated version of her, still clad in the uniform—silk blouse, creepers, platinum blond locks—that’s defined much of her year. Made with the help of motion-capture technology, the alter ego is the joint creation of co-directors Patrick Osborne and Robert Rodriguez; the former an Oscar-winning Disney animator, the latter a mo-cap aficionado and loyal friend to pop music. Exiting the studio lot, animated Eilish climbs into a silver Porsche 550 Spyder and sets out on a self-guided tour of the City of Angels.

Across town, the real Eilish begins her first front-to-back run of her second studio album, July's Happier Than Ever, from a crowd-less Hollywood Bowl. “Things I once enjoyed/ Just keep me employed now,” she sings on its opening track, “Getting Older,” seemingly explaining at least some of her alter ego’s despondency. Over the next hour, she performs the album with a slew of special guests: her producer and brother, Finneas, who darts as usual between his roles as backup vocalist, keyboardist, and guitarist; Andrew Marshall, the siblings’ go-to drummer; the Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel; the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus (LACC), with which Eilish sang growing up; and Brazilian guitarist Romero Lubambo.

The film is just the latest entry in the star’s recent streaming takeover, 2021 having also seen the releases of the Apple TV+ documentary The World’s A Little Blurry and Prime Video’s three-episode musical special, Prime Day Show. It’s to some extent a way to keep fans sated with live material from the album before she can embark on her tour -- also of the same name -- in February of 2022. (In March of 2020, the pandemic abruptly halted her Where Do We Go? World Tour after only three shows.) But as with everything else that Eilish does by way of visual accompaniment, there’s simply too much at work conceptually to dismiss it as a mere gift to fans. 

While the entire “concert experience” clocks in at a breezy 66 minutes, it doesn’t pretend to have been shot in one uninterrupted stretch. (It’s in fact the product of a multi-day shoot.) The orchestra appears and disappears; we jump from moonlight to daylight and back again; at one point, the siblings have suddenly relocated to the opposite end of the amphitheatre. In classic Rodriguez fashion, all the stops are pulled out to spruce up the tried-and-true concert film format -- drone shots, rapid-fire editing, intimate close-ups, and even the odd black-and-white sequence. (His style is arguably most pronounced during Eilish’s supercharged rendition of “Oxytocin,” where red lights and Steadicams do much of the legwork.) The variety here befits an album that takes a similarly unpredictable, even messy approach to its subject matter: recovering from a small reservoir of trauma(s).  

As Eilish’s most jazz-influenced and ethereal project yet, several tracks from Happier Than Ever reach their full potential accompanied by a live orchestra. One standout is “Therefore I Am,” which magnifies the background strings on the studio recording before practically detonating the used-to-be synths. “GOLDWING” is especially stirring performed with the LACC, since Eilish was first introduced to the hymn undergirding its track as a member of the choir. The film, like the album, ultimately presents her as a sort of Gen-Z Julie London, crooning her way through numbers about social media and 30 Under 30 lists.       

“It is such a thrill to be able to do this in my hometown,” Eilish reflects while on stage. “A place that really formed me into who I am, and I think that I really took it for granted.” Though the film’s ‘love letter’ concept is ostensibly self-explanatory, it seems that this homecoming -- literal as well as figurative, given how she was yanked out of her last tour -- has been more complicated than one might guess. After all, the Los Angeles of the album is the setting for having strangers appear on her doorstep (“Getting Older”), being forced to meet with lovers under a pseudonym (“Billie Bossa Nova”), being chased and scrutinized by members of the press (“OverHeated”), having her life threatened by a stalker (“NDA”), and fretting over someone who keeps calling her while drunk behind the wheel (“Happier Than Ever”). 

It’s only during the title track, the album’s penultimate one, that Eilish finally synthesizes these pent-up feelings into one grave, maybe shameful admission. “I’d never treat me this s--tty/ You made me hate this city,” she almost wails at an unnamed ex. Here, the arrangement is kept the same as in the studio version, with only the two siblings and Marshall on stage. But while the scene may lack the dramatics of the song’s music video -- an unfortunate concession is also made in the form of Disney+ muting the curse words that make its second half so cathartic -- it isn’t any less powerful. During his climatic guitar solo, Finneas strays from his post to join Eilish where she euphorically spins around in the middle of the stage, the two at last on the other side of what has doubtlessly been an emotionally taxing collaboration.  

In all, the film might be read as Eilish repenting for the sin of falling out with the place that raised her, attempting to relearn it in the aftermath of the painful experiences that tested her relationship to it. Her animated self is a chance to do that in a more physical sense, if still technically virtually. Cruising through town in her Porsche, she travels along the coast and eventually through Hollywood, past historical landmarks like the Roosevelt hotel and the Palladium. Perhaps the star is coming to terms with how a given place can be at once magical and haunted.

Though Eilish has a long history of turning to animation for different projects, this instance imbues real life with a welcome fantastical quality. (Her references apparently included live-action/animation hybrid films like 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit and 1992’s Cool World.) It becomes more and more clear over the course of the film that she and her avatar actually share a universe. During “Halley’s Comet,” both characters can see the titular celestial body in the sky; elsewhere in its runtime, animated vines hang over the stage, or water lilies bloom out of it.  

In due course, animated Billie suddenly wanders right into the amphitheatre, locking eyes with the one performing the title track, still in its deceptively soothing first half. The two Billies share a moment not meant to be legible to the rest of us, and then one takes a seat in front of the other—the only audience member who might matter here at all.