Pop stars pay lip service to how much they need their fans, a sentiment that carries real weight when a billion Spotify streams is barely enough to cover the rent and the pandemic rendered music venues moot. With the transactional layer of the artist-fan dynamic stripped away like a dirty Band-Aid, the scrambled migration toward digital spaces began to reveal deeper truths about what (some) creators really need from their cults of personality.
For British singer-songwriter Charli XCX — on top of the world before COVID-19 forced the brashly individualistic 28-year-old to hole up at home with the rest of us — those truths were as much a revelation to herself as they were to any of the people who listen to her music. Stuck in her L.A. house with two managers and an on-again off-again boyfriend (Fun fact: Pre-pandemic, the self-diagnosed workaholic hadn’t spent more than 11 consecutive days with him in the seven years they’d been dating), Charli found herself slowing down for the first time since her career blew up back in 2011. It wasn’t long before some of the insecurities she’d been trying to outrun began to catch up with her.
The roar of the crowd helped Charli block the worst of the voices in her head — the ones telling her she’s not pretty enough or smart enough or interesting enough, apart from her songs — but as soon as the rest of the world went quiet, they cut straight through the silence. It wasn’t long before Charli began to realize the extent to which wobbly self-worth fueled her workaholism. Naturally, her first response was to make an absolute banger of a pop album about it.
And not just any album, but an album about her connection to others in her life, and their connection to her. “How I’m Feeling Now” would be recorded from scratch in five weeks, and written on full display of — and sometimes with direct assistance from — Charli’s “Angels” (her LGBTQIA-forward legion of fans) watching live over Zoom. At the behest of music video directors Bradley & Pablo (Bradley Bell and Pablo Jones-Soler), Charli even agreed to film the whole process.
The vital, bouncy, fist-tight headrush of a 67-minute documentary that Bradley & Pablo cut together would be been a blast even if it didn’t amount to more than the portrait of an artist trying to make sense of a new creative climate. Instead, “Alone Together” is as focused on the people who need Charli’s music as it is on her need to make it. Cole in Alabama, Ronald in Mexico, Archi in London, the fabulous Emiliano (aka Poison Oakland) in California — these are some of the faces that pop out from the predominately queer community of young people around the world who are desperate for the solace and solidarity they found at Charli’s shows.
In the fastest of sketches, Bradley & Pablo introduce a handful of these kids as they bop around their bedrooms during Club Quarantine parties on Zoom. Even at 150bpm, there’s no mistaking the sense of togetherness they get from and give to each other. It’s clear that Charli’s music isn’t who she is so much as how she connects to people. Her intuition continues to serve as a conduit for her Angels during lockdown, suggesting that she understands it in her bones. Maybe, if she’s able to beat the clock and finish “How I’m Feeling Now” by her self-appointed deadline, she’ll be able to hold on to that feeling once the world speeds up again.
Bradley & Pablo have described that race as “a coming-of-age sci-fi drama set in the midst of a pandemic seen through the eyes of a pop star,” and despite the limitations of creating a documentary from their increasingly stressed-out subject’s self-recorded footage, “Alone Together” rides a wave almost as exciting as the film’s uber-romantic logline. If the circumstances make this feel like more of a scratchy, digital, four-on-the-floor-in-your-foyer vibe — we learn just enough about Charli’s relationship with boyfriend Huck Kwong to wish we knew more — the directors do a brilliant job of making its ad-hoc, mixed-media aesthetic into more of a feature than a bug. Glitched together from dozens of Charli’s boom-tastic PC Music bangers and punctuated with computer-generated animation (impish avatars and the like), the film nails the semi-digital existence that we all have come to understand as its own kind of reality.
At a time when everything on our screens melts into the same slipstream of content, and even major Oscar movies feel like they’re figments of our collective imagination, it’s hard to fathom that “Alone Together” will have much of a life as anything more than a thwomping bauble of pandemic ephemera. Charli’s Angels will rightly treasure it, but this hard little diamond of a film might be a bit too small and self-contained for a wider audience to care. That would be a shame, if only because the documentary eventually doubles as a quicksilver portrait of how some online communities turn fandom into a two-way street; the Angels feel connected to each other through Charli, and Charli feels connected to herself through them.
On the same tip, that’s also the reason why “Alone Together” doesn’t need to chart on Netflix or whatever to assert its value. “I only threw this party for you / For you, for you, for you,” Charli sings. As long as she and her Angels keep saving a space for each other, it doesn’t matter if anyone else shows up.
“Alone Together” premiered at SXSW 2021. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.