SXSW: ‘Demi Lovato: Dancing with the Devil’ is a Shockingly Honest Documentary, with Some Glaring Omissions (FILM REVIEW)

Rating: B

There’s a lot to admire in Dancing with the Devil, a documentary that chronicles the life of pop star Demi Lovato, centered squarely on her 2018 headline-making overdose. The opening night film of SXSW’s all-virtual endeavor in an already documentary-heavy slate, director Michael D. Ratner tells a compelling, unflinching story of Lovato’s low point. Though it doesn’t quite follow through with every issue it brings to the table.

It’s framed with all the typical conventions of the medium, comprised largely of talking head interviews with Lovato’s closest friends and (mostly former) employees, and several of the star herself. Intercut is concert footage, timestamped within the context of her overdose, along with video shot for what was to be a documentary about her 2018 tour. Following her overdose, the doc was permanently shelved, as Lovato and company explain in painfully honest detail about what led to, and what followed, that fateful night.

It doesn’t break any new ground in terms of its structure, though the convention works to its benefit by showing the toll addiction can take on everyone in its orbit. Told in four parts, it begins relying heavily on the 2018 footage, which offers up some conflicting takes on the mood going around on tour. Some speak of Lovato at the top of her game, on-stage and off, while others portray a tense, draining affair that just so happened to pay off with great shows and not really anywhere else at the time. Woven in are stories of Lovato’s own father, who himself succumbed to addiction, and died several days before being found by authorities.

Already weighed down by the usual constraints that come with being a young female thrust in the spotlight as a child and stayed, issues of her (then) six years of sobriety and ongoing eating disorder had rippled through her professional life, with severe dietary restrictions and drug testing for everyone on the tour. Which fairly obviously helped contribute to the overall dour mood at the time.

The middle two sections are when things get raw, as details of Lovato’s initial relapse, overdose, and subsequent relapses are addressed. As it centers on Lovato’s narrative, the alternating commentary from friends, family and (again, mostly former) coworkers paints a vivid, grim picture that will feel familiar to those who’ve dealt with addiction — directly or indirectly. While the candor is repeatedly explained to be meant as a means to destigmatize the larger conversations around these topics, the doc ends up with a few glaring blindspots by the time the fourth installment draws to a close.

Namely, former choreographer and creative director Dani Vitale, who was famously reported to have been with Lovato the night she overdosed. Though the details were reiterated here (she was with Lovato earlier in the evening, then left, after which the “Sober” singer called over a drug dealer), the initial reporting essentially put a target on Vitale’s back. Within days, she’d lost all of her jobs and clientele, and couldn’t find work being falsely labeled as the friend who helped Lovato OD. She was also hounded by the bottom-feeding pariahs, desperate to sell their smartphone clips to outlets that thrive solely on tragedy porn. As well as Lovato’s fans.

Though her media harassment was mostly glossed over, the fan harassment was not. In fact, it was punctuated with screenshots of Instagram comments calling for Vitale’s death. Which made the choice to follow this up with a clip of Lovato praising her fans, before adding that they “can be a little much, sometimes” all the more baffling. Despite having ‘Trump tells seditionists he loves them and are very special’ energy, there’s no resolution to Vitale’s story. There is, however, footage of Lovato meeting with Vitale before her interview, and the affability shown on screen between these two makes the decision to abruptly abandon her story from this point all the more baffling. Especially since there are two soundbites from Christina Aguilera tacked on that add literally nothing to the story — and the second one is (ironically), Aguilera exclaiming that Lovato will stick up for anyone who has her back.

These unresolved issues aside, Dancing with the Devil does stay centered on her without slipping into being self-serving. Over the course of its nearly two-hour total runtime, Lovato gets unapologetically frank about not only addiction and disorders, but her torrid history in Hollywood, her #MeToo moment, and her recent coming out. Really enough to keep gossip columnists busy for hours, if not days. Though the actual impact after it hits YouTube on March 26 has yet to be seen, the sheer frankness in telling Lovato’s story is, in itself, a noble effort in breaking down the stigma of talking about addiction.

Demi Lovato: Dancing with the Devil will be available to stream on YouTube staring March 26

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