There's a gold rush on Britney Spears documentaries. But do they help or exploit?

Kelly Lawler
USA TODAY

There’s a new gold rush in Hollywood, and it’s all about Britney Spears

No, it’s not for her music, as one might imagine given the pop star’s talent and huge discography of hits. It’s a flood of documentaries about the singer’s life, and more specifically, the conservatorship she’s been under since 2008 in California.

It started with FX on Hulu’s “Framing Britney Spears” in February, an explanatory-style doc that laid out the history of Spears' career and just how and when she was put under a conservatorship, which raised awareness of her unique legal situation. After a June court hearing in which Spears spoke out publicly about the conservatorship for the first time in over a decade, condemning it and her father and conservator, James "Jamie" Spears, the interest in her case has increased exponentially.

Before Wednesday's hearing in which a judge suspended father Jamie Spears as Britney's conservator, both FX on Hulu and Netflix have released new documentaries about her, “Controlling Britney Spears” and “Britney vs. Spears,” respectively. 

After watching both documentaries, it's hard not to walk away feeling queasy. I wonder if the media spotlight that was once revelatory and potentially helpful for Spears' plight has turned around and starting exploiting her akin to how they allege her conservatorship has. When looking for artful and journalistic storytelling, "Controlling" and "Britney vs. Spears" are not where anyone will find it. 

From the hearing:Britney Spears' father suspended as conservator of her estate, judge rules

In this file photo taken on July 22, 2019, Britney Spears arrives for the premiere of Sony Pictures' "Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood" at the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, California.

FX on Hulu's 'Framing Britney Spears' vs. 'Controlling Britney Spears'

The documentary that started it all was "Framing," which helped catapult Spears' conservatorship battle into the national attention. What was once the domain of "Free Britney" advocates, super fans and trade publications became everyday conversation. Her June testimony was major national news, as was this week's day in court. At Wednesday's hearing, Judge Brenda Penny dismissed Jamie Spears from his contentious 13-year role as his daughter's financial guardian and set a Nov. 12 date for a new hearing that could close the case.

The court named California accountant John Zabel as the temporary conservator of Spears' finances, as requested by the singer's attorney, Mathew Rosengart. 

What's next: Britney Spears' dad is out. How quickly could her conservatorship end now?

Both documentaries were a part of FX's "The New York Times Presents" series, which streams on Hulu, in which journalists from the newspaper produce documentaries on a variety of topical subjects. The Times branding gave "Framing" and air of sophistication and credibility often lost to other documentaries that don't come from purely journalistic sources. In raising questions about Spears' case, and interrogating the way the media and other celebrities treated her in the early 2000s, the documentary had a profound impact on both the legal proceedings and the cultural understanding of Spears' life and career. 

"Framing Britney Spears" is a 2021 documentary series on Hulu directed by Samantha Stark.

But the follow-up, "Controlling," lacks the gravitas of the first Times outing. The film was dropped on Hulu with just hours of notice, after Netflix had already announced its own Spears doc. It felt a bit like when the two streaming platforms competed in 2019 to debut documentaries about the disastrous Fyre Festival – more Hollywood gamesmanship than artful storytelling.

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The documentary itself did have a few "revelations," including allegations that Jamie Spears secretly recorded his daughter in her bedroom and monitored her phone activity without her knowledge (Britney Spears' lawyer, Mathew Rosengart filed a supplemental motion calling for an immediate removal and suspension of Spears' father from her conservatorship Monday, citing the Times report, which was discussed at the Wednesday hearing). 

But as a coherent story with a beginning, middle and end, "Controlling" fell distinctly flat. Relying on only a few sources who speak at great length, the doc becomes a bit of a lecture rather than something dynamic and watchable. Though it is a sequel, "Controlling" backtracks to include information from "Framing" that most viewers are now familiar with. As far as coming to a conclusion, the documentary simply looks ahead to Wednesday's hearing. 

Netflix's "Britney vs. Spears" premiered Tuesday.

Does Netflix's 'Britney vs. Spears' explain or exploit?

Things are far worse on Netflix with "Britney vs. Spears," an excruciatingly long and self-indulgent film that adds next to nothing to the conversation. The film's director, Erin Lee Carr, utilizing a grating documentary trope by inserting herself into the narrative, films herself opening file folders on a computer and reciting cheesy lines like, "you don't get out ... until you scream." 

Carr also openly directs Spears' story from the point of view of a super fan, showing pictures of herself adoring Spears' music as a child. Documentarians are not all journalists by trade, so it's not exactly an ethical lapse, but it does color the film in a biased light. When Carr talks about Spears choosing to stopmaking music "for" her fans, it brings up a curious sense of entitlement. Is Carr making a movie about Spears' life for the wellbeing of the singer or because she is on the hunt for for Spears to make more music for fans to enjoy? 

'I deserve to have the same rights':Netflix releases trailer for Britney Spears documentary

Both documentaries utilize photos and video of Spears in their marketing, and rely on paparazzi footage, sometimes from the singer's lowest moments, including her protracted custody battle with ex-husband Kevin Federline, to illustrate their redundant stories. It is a strategy that Spears specifically criticized after "Framing," posting on Instagram, "I didn't watch the documentary but from what I did see of it I was embarrassed by the light they put me in ... I cried for two weeks and well .... I still cry sometimes!" 

Those shots don't necessarily add much to the narrative, but it certainly makes the documentaries that much more dramatic and salacious. Perhaps the creators of the documentaries are acting out of an investigator's desire for the truth, but there's also no denying that there's money being made off of Spears' story here.

Just like in the music industry, making money is what Hollywood does, even with documentaries. Spears and her legal battle are just another story to be told, and considering the interest in it, it's unlikely the Hollywood machine will stop anytime soon. But it's worth asking whether or not any of this is helping anyone.

Contributing: Charles Trepany and Maria Puente