Review: Charli XCX's 'Alone Together' is a VIP pass into the Angel fan club
A great music doc can't be too cozy. Which do you think reveals more about its subject: Asif Kapadia's heartbreaking 2015 "Amy," which showed everyone in Amy Winehouse's life fail her through a lens of brutal honesty, or "Katy Perry: Part of Me," which was produced by Perry and turned the dissolution of her marriage into a 3-D, candy-coated travelogue?
I saw and enjoyed both in theaters, and I think you can gather my answer. (Granted: One of those subjects was posthumously documented, which goes a long, long way toward a feeling of journalistic detachment.)
"Alone Together," a documentary about the making of hyperpop innovator and hit songwriter Charli XCX's quarantine album "How I'm Feeling Now," is more on the Perry end of the rock doc spectrum. (Charli, a Brit born Charlotte Aitchison, executive produces.) But cozy though it may be, it's also an eye-popping, efficient and fan-focused look at an artist whose relationship to their fanbase feels symbiotic in a way that the coronavirus pandemic only enhanced.
"Alone Together" made its world premiere as part of South by Southwest's virtual film festival on Thursday evening. Directed by Bradley & Pablo (aka music video directors Bradley Bell and Pablo Jones-Soler), it was the fest's closing headliner film.
Know off the bat that if you're not an Angel, the nickname for a Charli XCX stan (think about it for a few seconds), "Alone Together" probably was not engineered with you in mind at any point. (Yours truly speaks conversational angel, at least; vroom vroom.)
It's more than a love letter to the fans. The doc centers the voices of those fans as much as it does Charli's. Young enthusiasts, notably a few queer people, open up the film with voiceover about the trials of pandemic isolation. Being part of the virtual Angel community provides safe haven for them: a drag queen struggling to find work, a young man in Mexico with dreams of opening an LGBTQ club, a fan in the midst of gender transition who's living with unaccepting parents.
The doc does take time to catch the casuals up on Charli. After she got her start as a teen on MySpace, she's successfully reinvented herself with each new project, earning a fervent queer fanbase along the way — the role of which, in regard to her fame, she's very explicit about. Mainstream chart hits have come Charli's way in the form of songs like "Boom Clap" and "Fancy," but the days before the pandemic find her embarking on her first solo headlining tour. It's clear that the artist is driven, compulsively so, to create.
So, it's not a shocker that the standstill of coronavirus lockdown breeds an ennui in Charli that baking banana bread can't fix.
Trapped inher house — "Alone Together" is not a subtle beast, and it's very clear that Charli feels like a caged animal — she announces to her fans on social media that she's going to write, record and produce an entire album in five locked-down weeks. The process normally takes at least a year.
As a documentary about an artist's unique process — and I'm not using unique hyperbolically — "Alone Together" is enthralling. See, Charli tells her Angels over Zoom that she wants to make the album with their help, and she means it.
This isn't a radio show-style promotion, where one lucky fan wins a chance to have their vocals mixed into background oblivion on a minor album cut. The Angels workshop lyrics in real time with Charli through Instagram Live comments. She uploads voice memos of melodies to her feed, and the fans give feedback — sure, it's a lot of "OMG yas mom" stuff, but there's a real sense of collaboration to some messages.
Even the album art is put up to the democratic process. Charli's videos are even partially art directed by the Angels, who upload footage and help steer the vision of one green screen concept.
Stylistically, it's actually a boon to "Alone Together" that Charli and her team were so intimately involved in production. The film speaks the same visual language as the singer-songwriter and her ilk — it looks colorful and glitchy, it incorporates lo-fi social media footage liberally and it fully commits to an uncanny virtual aesthetic familiar to anyone who's dabbled in the extended PC Music universe. There's a purple devil emoji in the opening credits, and the interview subjects all have corresponding digital fantasy avatars. The fans are listed in the end credits by their social media handles. "Alone Together" and fellow SXSW headliner "Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free" have about as much in common as, well, Charli XCX and the guy who sang "Wildflowers."
The making of tracks like "claws" and "party 4 u" are the A-plot of "Alone Together," but a story about relationships courses through the film's pipes. The subject of the lyrics on "How I'm Feeling Now" is often Charli's on-and-off boyfriend of 7 years, Huck Kwong, a New Yorker who's sheltering with the singer in Los Angeles during the pandemic. She's a genial, compulsively vulnerable public persona, heaving gut-wrenched sobs over feelings of inadequacy toward a camera lens and joining fans on Zoom; he's guarded and visibly uncomfortable with spotlight, which is unfortunate, as his girlfriend is documenting every moment of their co-habitation. It's hard to invest in their arc.
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That easy vulnerability of Charli's, though, is shared by the majority of her co-stars: the Angels. The most compelling moments of "Alone Together," by a country mile, are the glimpses into the bedroom-bound lives of young people who are probably too used to being constrained by the world around them. The documentary might be a fun, ultimately minor entry into the music doc canon, but its depiction of queer refuge in virtual spaces is a landmark.
Behind the scenes
During a March 20 SXSW Q&A, Charli XCX and directors Bradley & Pablo joined comedian Benito Skinner over Zoom to talk about the origins of "Alone Together." Charli, appearing in front of a glass-brick background, called the documentary process "liberating and scary." She first linked up with the directors on the music video for her song "Vroom Vroom," and their creative relationship developed from there.
Charli characterized "Alone Together" as showing the "true process" of making the album, in contrast to other behind-the-scenes docs that she called "controlled." Bradley & Pablo were not in the artist's house to film during her creative quarantine; instead, they received Dropbox links to the footage that Charli had gathered and had to craft the film's narrative from that. They also spent a lot of time on video chats with the Angels who appear in the film, making sure that their experiences could integrate with Charli's in the final product.
You wouldn't know it from the documentary, but Charli said in the Q&A that she hates being on camera and normally doesn't film herself singing in studio; she thinks she sounds "mental" without Auto-Tune. As for her next creative move, Charli doesn't see another process doc in the cards, but she is pretty sure her next musical project will feel "opposite" to that album "How I'm Feeling Now."
Editor's note: This story has been updated, including with remarks from the filmmaker's Q&A on March 20.
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