Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour Movie knows Its audience all too well

The movie is all Taylor’s version — and it gives them just what they want.

It's Taylor's world; the rest of us are just living in it. - Flickr / Paolo Villanueva
It's Taylor's world; the rest of us are just living in it.
“Here’s to Champagne problems!” a 20-something brunette in a ball gown cheers, her voice as bubbly as her lifted flute. It’s opening night at Alamo Drafthouse for what bodes to be one of the biggest movies this fall — not a Spielberg thriller, Halloween horror flick or Oscar-baiting period piece, but a film version of the highest-grossing concert tour of all time, starring none other than planet Earth’s favorite blonde American.

The megastar’s mane may be more a golden brown these days as she approaches her 34th year, but her iconic bangs and red lips remain. Sitting through the film’s opening credits (a loop of Taylor YouTube deep cuts and quirky parodies), I’m a little disappointed that I’m one of few in the audience who attempted to emulate her signature style (the Alamo hostess kicking things off with a toast, while glam indeed, seemed more prepped for prom). 

Outside a few parents and straggler geriatrics (tonight, anyone 40+), the vibe is distinctly Gen Z. Clusters of tweens, teens and college-age women raise lavender light-up “Alamo’s Version” sabers as Swift takes the stage on-screen. Despite my lack of abiding ardor and encroaching middle age, I do the same. I’m a sucker for spectacles of light, especially of the hyperfemme variety. I am also a fan of ebullient fandom in public spaces, even when it’s aimed at someone I don’t personally worship. Besides, my 40-something partner, an eminent professor of applied mathematics, has tagged along and knows all the words.

Over the next 168 minutes celebrating Swift’s eponymous “eras,” I come to realize that critiquing a movie version of a concert tour poses a number of challenges, chief among them distinguishing between the film adaptation of the stadium spectacle (this one entirely recorded at a show outside Los Angeles, at the end of the tour’s first leg) and the strengths and weaknesses of the concert itself. Directed by Sam Wrench, the movie would seem to do justice to Swift’s epic night-long performance and the accompanying audiovisual extravaganza (the set design alone is of Broadway proportions). The cinematography takes us from the front row to the mezzanine to the stage itself; from an aerial view, the SoFi Stadium resembles a diamond of glittering smartphones. The movie’s sound is tremendous, and on more than one occasion at tonight’s screening, groups of women take to the space in front of the screen to shake their Taylor sabers and shimmy. One giggly group of grade school girls runs from one end of the theatre and back again, barely looking up at the screen above them.

All of this feels good. It often feels like we’re at a live show. Thanks to huge demand and the bustling resale market, the Eras tour led to some of the most expensive — if not the most expensive — concert tickets in all of modern history, and the movie version arguably extends the quasi-religious experience for anyone who can fork over $15 (an extra $8 for pastel swag). In a time when movie houses are struggling to stay open, it’s refreshing — even moving — to share a film experience with a full, exhilarated house.

That said, the concert itself felt uneven — a surprise given Swift’s 19 years in the music industry and extensive touring. At the beginning, she saunters down the stage like a runway model, sparkling in a rhinestone leotard and knee-high boots. But a millennial Heidi Klum she is not (no matter the resemblance from the nosebleeds). Swift seems a bit awkward, honestly, in front of so many adoring fans. This, of course, is crucial to her appeal. What can be hard to grasp for those raised on Madonna or Michael Jackson is how Swift’s patent lack of effortless stage presence (from hackneyed gestures and stilted direct address to the crowd) is part of what makes her so powerful. Forget that she’s one the richest, most influential performers and businesswomen alive today. Forget the fact that she’s tall, white, thin and resembles a Classic Disney princess. Somehow Swift is “relatable,” or, at least, her audience is desperate for her to be.

Even more awkward in the show’s first hour are her interactions with backup dancers and singers, the vast majority of whom are Black or Brown women. As Swift play-acts camaraderie with them onstage, it’s as though she has a new “Black bestie” with each new refrain. The unintended effect is that she somehow comes across as even whiter than she already is. So, too, is it cringey to see her play-act a romantic spat with a Black man seated at the end of a dining room table so long it mimics an early scene from Citizen Kane. Are we supposed to feel bad that Swift’s Black boyfriend is silently hydrating while she divulges her insecurities? These extras better be getting paid, I whispered to my rapt companion. 

The show picks up about halfway through with the Reputation set, as suddenly the stage explodes as the dancers — and Swift, to the extent that she can — start to really get down. Another set of backup performers and singers — across a variety of ages and body sizes, in addition to race—jump in during the concert’s latter half, and their energy is contagious. Swift, too, seems buoyed, even as she starts to look less pristine. Sweat glistens from the tip of her nose. Her long hair gets messy. She extemporizes before a ballad at a moss-covered piano. She swaps her stiletto boots for ballet flats. By the time the show culminates in Swift’s most recent Midnights era, with two rows of giant pastel clouds held aloft around her (each in the likeness of a God-sized Today Sponge), I’m both ready for the movie to end and feel like I’ve gone on a very real journey. 

Is this movie going to thrill the unconverted? I doubt it. But it’s not a bad excuse to sing along and dance with glittery strangers — something I think we all could do more of for the good of our ailing species.

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