SXSW Film Review: Demi Lovato: Dancing with the Devil
Tell-all documentary can't balance emotional versus promotional
By Jenny Nulf,
12:30AM, Wed. Mar. 17, 2021
In 2018, pop star Demi Lovato lived through one of the scariest things a person can survive from: an overdose. Her latest documentary series, Demi Lovato: Dancing with the Devil is meant to serve as window into her psyche, and open a frank discussion about her addiction.
For part of it, the documentary (which had its world premiere as the opening night title for SXSW 2021) succeeds. Lovato dives into her late father’s overdose, the pressures of growing up in the Disney limelight, and her mental health struggles leading up to her own overdose. Jordan Jackson, Lovato’s assistant at the time, unravels the horrible day, and her recollection is depicted by a simplistic animated sequence. There’s no delicacy when it comes to the reality of an overdose: Lovato lists she had three strokes and a heart attack, had to fight pneumonia, and suffers from blind spots, multiple organ failure and brain damage. Her pain is valid and real, but as honest as she appears to be, there’s something that doesn’t feel quite right in the latter half of the documentary.
Dancing with the Devil aims to be a tell-all emotional unveiling. Director Michael D. Ratner sets up this kind of intimacy by the way he positions Lovato in front of the camera. She sits in a chair, body fully facing the camera, looking directly at her audience. Dancing with the Devil isn’t supposed to feel like a documentary. It’s an exclusive one-on-one sit down with one of pop music’s greatest talents.
The documentary promotes a false sense of openness so that her fans feel close to her and connect with her struggles. However, these are the very same fans who previously cyber bullied her former choreographer, Dani Vitale, so the glass wall Lovato builds between her and the camera is necessary and understandable. Where the film gets inky and starts walking the tightrope of emotional vs. promotional is when business manager Scooter Braun begins to infiltrate the latter half. A grey figure in the music industry who's been both lauded and villainized, Braun’s sole purpose in the documentary is to prove his loyalty to Lovato’s recovery, but his presence feels a tad gross, merely there to seek profit.
There’s not a sense that Lovato is a calculated person, but rather she’s unable to give her audience what they’re craving. Although the pop music machine has wrecked her mental health, she doesn’t seem to be in a place yet where she can fully tear it down, and that in part is due to the enablers that surround her. She sprinkles crumbs of her suffering throughout the documentary, from honesty about sexual abuse to direct discussions about her eating disorders (Lovato ate “watermelon cakes” for a majority of her young adult birthdays). The shadow of her pain looms continuously, but is shattered by the documentary’s demand for a faux happy ending: her upcoming album release.
Pop icons don’t owe their fans, or anyone, deep insight to their lives. Dancing with the Devil does not need to be emotionally raw, nor should we demand it to be. Nonetheless, the landing is unsettling when the buildup only leads to push for monetary success that overshadows the artist’s very real, tragic mental health struggles.
Demi Lovato: Dancing with the Devil