Moments into Olivia Rodrigo’s documentary Driving Home 2 U, we see her turn on a camera in the shoebox-sized home studio of her producer, Daniel Nigro, state the date – March 2021 – and squirm as he plays the first song they wrote together, a year earlier. “And I’m still not over it!” she says of the relationship documented in the song. She seems less embarrassed by the enduring heartache than with confronting a less refined version of her songwriting – a craft she would hone into 2021’s biggest hit.
Drivers License, Rodrigo’s lovelorn debut single, came out on 8 January 2021 and broke the Spotify record for the most one-day streams of any non-Christmas song within four days. “My entire life just shifted in an instant,” Rodrigo says in the film, which seems to exist as much to help the then 18-year-old comprehend that rapid change as to entertain her fans. As well as the studio footage, it shows her road-tripping from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles, the places where she wrote her subsequent debut album, Sour, giving atmospheric performances in diners and deserts along the way. Curiously, it never acknowledges why she was in Utah: Rodrigo is a lead character in Disney’s High School Musical TV series, which shoots there. Although the documentary is produced by the Walt Disney Company, it entirely omits the early part of Rodrigo’s career on two of its shows to frame her narrative purely in terms of her growth as a songwriter.
The other unspoken detail in Rodrigo’s film is the pandemic, noticeable only in the dates that pop up onscreen and one scene where she and Nigro wear masks to host two label execs who visit near the end of recording. Arguably, her evolution as a songwriter flourished because cloistered working environments were the only viable way to make music during the height of the Covid-19 crisis – and they were conveniently closed to label interference or the danger of a young voice being crowded out in a busy room.
She wasn’t the only songwriter benefiting from these reduced circumstances: Driving Home 2 U makes an interesting companion piece to Charli XCX’s Alone Together, another account of creativity persevering during the pandemic.
Within days of California imposing its first stay-at-home order in March 2020, Charli, a self-confessed workaholic, is coming apart. “I’m flailing, doing nothing, I just need to be preoccupied,” she cries, filming herself on her phone. So she sets herself the challenge of making an album within five weeks, a process that might usually take a year, calling it How I’m Feeling Now. What’s more, she intends to document every part of it to let fans feel as involved as possible: right down to holding Zoom writing sessions where she toggles between rhymebrain.com and their suggestions in the comments.
Charli’s fraught relationship with her label, Atlantic, over the last decade has been well documented: both parties have vacillated between whether she should be a mainstream pop star or an avant garde influencer who innovates alongside close collaborators such as PC Music figureheads Sophie and AG Cook. Unreconciled to this day (her new album Crash offers a meta take on the matter), that identity flux is presumably what made Atlantic fund this experimental project: it’s entirely in character, and so the risks are lower.
You wonder whether the lane Charli has carved out also helped create space for Rodrigo to work with just one producer in his home studio on her own major label debut. Not to mention, too, Beyoncé’s brains-trust process, Billie Eilish’s homespun pop – as documented in her own film, The World’s a Little Blurry – and Ariana Grande staking her claim, in 2018, to “put out music in the way that a rapper does” – ie fast and reactive. Sour was initially meant to be an EP, but Rodrigo told her label Geffen that she was determined to make a full album to document that period of her life. Staying in touch with fresh-wound emotions requires intimacy and speed, not the type of diluting creation-by-committee process that can particularly dog young female pop acts who aren’t trusted with their own work.
As New York Times pop music critic Jon Caramanica has often pointed out, major stars have started behaving more like cult acts, understanding that doing so helps them protect their vision and speak directly to an invested audience rather than risking their distinctiveness by trying to please allcomers: at the same time as Rodrigo and Charli were making these records, Taylor Swift was recording a pair of surprise albums at home with a coterie of left-field collaborators (a process that she also documented for Disney).
These films have wildly different stakes: Rodrigo’s are more about brand positioning, establishing distance between who she is now and who she used to be: she talks, strikingly, about playing the songs “in these places that meant so much to me and revisiting them with older eyes”, as if she were looking back in her dotage and not from a remove of about 18 months. The focus is on establishing her as a born songwriter, not a “former Disney star”, and dwelling on the emotional consequences of heartbreak rather than the drama she obliquely alludes to that characterised much media coverage of her breakout. It’s fans-only fare, for those who already know the details.
Charli’s vérité film has more at risk: will she make her five-week deadline? What’s more, it’s her first time cohabiting with her on-off boyfriend – in seven years, they’ve never spent more than 11 days together. It also coincides with her soliciting a therapist to unpick the toxic relationship between her work and her self-worth at what couldn’t be a more acute moment.
Nevertheless, documentation offers both artists, a decade apart in age, a form of protection: women’s agency in the studio is often still undermined, and both films leave no doubt as to Rodrigo and Charli’s authorship and role as equal collaborators. We see Charli setting up equipment and learning how to self-produce as well as writing to beats sent in by the likes of Cook and Palmistry; Rodrigo ad libs to a riff that Nigro coins on a whim and comes up with one of the most beloved songs on her debut album. These appear to be entirely empowered working environments, but having a camera present in the studio also seems like it should be an industry prerequisite, offering a kind of security – particularly for young female artists working with older men – in a space that has historically been open to exploitation.
Of the two films, Alone Together is by far the better documentary. Rodrigo’s is hermetically stagey, and the wan interviews undermine her pride in the messy emotional truth of her songs. The closing credits show photos of her larking about with the all-female band that backs her “live” performances, and it’s hard not to crave more of that sort of interaction: a group of girls road-tripping and bonding together, not lonely vignettes of Rodrigo in boilerplate landscapes. Charli’s film offers a wider time capsule of life under lockdown, particularly as she focuses on the experiences of isolated LGBTQ+ fans who find inclusion in her project and fan community. But they’re both appreciably devoid of any drama beyond making a creative deadline.
Since the New York Times released Framing Britney Spears in February 2021, a cottage industry has emerged for documentaries that “redeem” female pop cultural icons (or pariahs) of previous eras. And pop stars often turn to their own documentary vehicles when they’re in need of a redemption narrative (especially when they’re managed by Scooter Braun). Refreshingly, neither of these films offer a greater conclusion than: I made an album. Driving Home 2 U doesn’t cure Rodrigo of her heartbreak: “Hopefully I won’t be so sad in the next record,” she tells Nigro when they finish recording. Nor does Alone Together redeem Charli of her workaholism: “Shall we do another one?!” she jokes to her boyfriend and manager when she’s done. Creativity alone is presented as a valid marker of personal evolution. Their triumph lies in working within self-imposed limits, not striving to escape anyone else’s.