Editor’s Note: The following review is as part of our coverage of the 2021 South by Southwest Film Festival. Stay tuned for further reviews straight outta Austin — well, virtually, of course. Below, Jenn Adams kicks things off with Demi Lovato’s tragic new documentary.
The Pitch: In 2018, singer/songwriter Demi Lovato suffered a near-fatal overdose on drugs and alcohol. She survived, but just barely. This followed six years of very public sobriety in which she was often held up as a poster child for addiction and recovery, a dangerous variation of her childhood spent as the literal poster child for Disney perfection.
Directed by Michael D. Ratner, Dancing With the Devil is an honest and unflinching account of her relapse, overdose, and recovery and an open discussion of the sexual assault, childhood trauma, and loss of autonomy that contributed to her drug and alcohol abuse. It’s a moving and relatable account of a woman struggling to reclaim power and discover who she really is.
Behind the Scenes: This is not the documentary Lovato originally intended to make. The pop superstar was filming a behind-the-scenes chronicle of her 2018 world tour when she relapsed. Unreleased footage shows the days leading up to her overdose that are chilling in hindsight knowing the pain she was struggling to suppress. Lovato describes how she was essentially coerced by her management team to get sober and the strict systems of control designed to keep her “clean.” It’s an important look at the way sobriety is often portrayed in the media and the pressure we put on celebrities (especially women) to be role models.
Reclaiming Power: The second half of the documentary is Lovato’s attempt to set the record straight and reclaim power over what happened to her. While occasionally self-serving and meandering, it’s an honest acknowledgement that addiction doesn’t just affect the user. Lovato’s friends, family, and team recount the trauma of discovering her body minutes from death, time spent with her in the hospital, and the vicious attacks they faced in the aftermath. Lovato accepts that her choices caused her loved ones pain while admitting that this was a hard truth to face.
Taking Advantage: In an emotional segment, Lovato reports two instances of sexual assault. She was raped as a teenager and then, years later, “taken advantage of” and left for dead on the night of her overdose. She describes reporting the first assault during her time as a Disney kid and then having to continue working with her attacker day after day when he faced no consequences. What’s especially devastating are the reasons she gives for not going public with the assaults.
The pressure to maintain her virginal image, combined with societal expectations for Southern girls, prevented her from telling the truth about her trauma and contributed to her eating disorder and substance abuse. It’s a painful, albeit important, depiction of the realities of sexual assault. Women are conditioned to take the blame and Lovato’s description of doubting her actions during the second assault based on her level of intoxication is both heartbreaking and relatable.
The Hard Truth: Lovato also describes her skills at manipulation and pretending to be fine, all while hiding the truth about her mental health and drug use. This honesty leads to the difficult revelation that she is not currently sober. Although Lovato is avoiding hard drugs, she continues to use weed and alcohol in moderation. She contends that this path is working for her right now, and her assertion is as powerful as it is transparent. She’s not living on anyone else’s terms anymore.
The Verdict: Dancing With the Devil begins with person after person asking if they’re really going to tell the whole story. Is it really okay to go there? Lovato argues that, not only is it okay, but it’s necessary. Packaging addiction to make viewers more comfortable only leads to more pain down the road. While gut wrenching and potentially triggering, Dancing With the Devil is brutally honest and admirably resists putting a rosy filter on a life-or-death issue. Demi Lovato is finally telling the truth about who she is and what she’s been through.
Where’s It Streaming? Dancing With the Devil premieres via YouTube on March 23rd.