About halfway through Joe Pearlman’s “Lewis Capaldi: How I’m Feeling Now,” the Scottish pop star sets about crafting his second album. As he takes us into his songwriting process, he all but winks at the camera before walking through the ways this sort of thing tends to play out in other music documentaries: he’ll write the song, huff and puff over if it will be a hit, and we’ll suddenly fast-forward to a year later, when he’ll be playing the now-massive hit to sold-out crowds. Capaldi waits a beat. So does the film. Oh, no cutting ahead to the inevitable success? Ha! Back to the grind, it is.
It’s one of many self-referential moments in a film filled with them, in a life filled with them, as Capaldi’s incredible sense of self-awareness (about his pop stardom, about the pressures of the music biz, about his declining mental and physical health) are appealing to even those unfamiliar with his work. Capaldi gets it, which makes Pearlman’s Netflix film at first satisfying and then ultimately dismaying, with the filmmaker eventually choosing to embrace the very tropes his subject would likely scoff at. Capaldi doesn’t go for neat and tidy endings, so it’s a real shame that this too-glossy documentary does.
Pearlman’s film takes its title from the Capaldi song of the same name, a track off the star’s much-anticipated sophomore album, which is due to finally be released later this year. Sample lyrics provide a strong indication of what’s to come: “So here’s to my beautiful life / That seems to leave me so unsatisfied / No sense of self, but self-obsessed / I’m always trapped inside my fuckin’ head.” Pearlman opens the film in intriguing territory: Capaldi, a pop star also known for his incredible humor (check out his video for “Forget Me”), tells an interviewer that success has only made him more insecure.
Record scratch? Soon, we’re tossed backward into the early days of Capaldi’s fame as he tells us all about what it’s like now that he’s a “celeb.” Capaldi’s musical acumen, paired with his zippy social media videos, rocketed him to the top of the charts and earned him scads of fans. (Frankly, anyone who sings as well as Capaldi and widely jokes about being “the Scottish Beyonce” is clearly on the up and up.)
But something is lurking, even in those happy early days. Look closely, and you’ll see the physical manifestation of Capaldi’s mental anguish. (Capaldi announced that he has Tourette’s syndrome last September, but the film still treats that known diagnosis as something of a gotcha.) Soon, we’re told that the COVID-19 pandemic “forces” the touring superstar to return home, where he endeavors to write his second album in his parents’ backyard shed (it’s a nice shed!) in cozy small town Whitburn, Scotland.
Capaldi is searingly aware of his lot in life, even if Pearlman glosses over the truth. “You can only be the next big thing for like, a year,” the singer says, before fielding yet another call from his label, all of them eager to hear what the “Someone You Loved” star is cooking up next. The pressure builds, the heat is on, and yet, “How I’m Feeling Now” only vaguely attempts to interrogate where exactly those tensions are coming from (late in the doc Capaldi heads to LA for an excruciating meeting with his team, the kind of thing that could engender its own film about the relentless hunger of record label brass milking their big stars).
Pearlman takes a similarly noncommittal approach to Capaldi’s family, wavering between showing them as nice, regular folk who are very proud of their son to brief moments in which they whinge about how Lewis wouldn’t help them get a free hot tub. Fame is surely a weird thing — Capaldi himself comments that someone once told him that fame doesn’t change you, it changes everyone around you — but Pearlman won’t go much deeper, and he certainly won’t go much darker. (Also sticky: when Capaldi introduces us to his closest pals, the charm of one of them being an actual gravedigger is immediately tempered by the note that two of them are also in Capaldi’s band.)
Eventually, Capaldi’s self-aware nature is revealed as imposter syndrome — he admits he doesn’t know why anyone would come see him perform, and seems genuinely pained at the thought of it, considering performing is his favorite thing to do — and his tics become so pronounced that no one can ignore them anymore.
Those complications are very real indeed, but Pearlman leans too hard on playing up the juxtaposition from “happy chappy” Lewis to this more tender man, and “How I’m Feeling Now” slips into the kind of tropes it’s easy to imagine Capaldi himself making fun of (suddenly dark color grading, buzzing score, quick cuts of past footage to approximate panic). Capaldi remains compelling to watch, a wonderfully honest performer who deserves a documentary willing to go as deep as its subject.
“Lewis Capaldi: How I’m Feeling Now” starts streaming on Netflix on Wednesday, April 5.