It seems fitting, and not actually that surprising, that the best Pop album of the decade would produce the best Concert Documentary film of the decade. In addition to the fact that the musical portions are wonderful, it succeeds in a field where even the finest concert films usually fail. Too often in these kinds of films the documentary-like spoken portions between the music (or ‘talking heads’, as they are dubbed in the business) tend to be tedious filler that leaves you impatiently waiting for the next concert piece. But Swift is so sincere, exuberant and humble that she charms even when she’s not singing, and it’s beyond adorable to see her gushing over meeting Mick Jagger or talking about all the wonderful friends she’s made on the world tour this film documents.
Now, Swift has always been more of a brilliant songwriter than a great singer per se; many insinuations have been made about her supposed reliance on auto-tune, and even in this film you can tell her voice is undergoing a certain amount of on-the-spot vocal enhancement through her microphone. But being a flawless technical singer and being a great performer are two different things, and there is an enormous amount of charisma and emotional power on display here, especially on an intimate acoustic rendition of “You Are In Love” and an emotionally devastating version of the underrated “I Knew You Were Trouble” from her previous album, Red.
The songs are mostly drawn from the tour’s eponymous album, with three selections from Red thrown in, as well as a rendition of her first megahit, “Love Story”, with an updated sound that resembles the style of her current material. Even the notorious “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” gets a spot, here transformed into a Punkish Hard Rock number, and it turns out that even her most reviled single apparently only needed a different arrangement to come out sounding absolutely phenomenal.
The film is also a visual tour-de-force: the visual effects accompanying the songs are not only dazzling, but actually do a superb job of complimenting and enhancing the songs’ actual meanings, rather than just being generic flashy special effects. Also, Swift has never been someone who has to rely on looks in place of actual talent like some other Pop stars, but there’s no denying she looks sensational throughout this film; her costume designers deserve a lot of credit for knowing exactly how to flatter her natural beauty.
Only three things mar the perfection of this album. First, one item from the original album, the bonus track “Wonderland”, is omitted. Not just from the film itself either…judging from the set list, it wasn’t even performed on the tour. This was probably due to time constraints (let’s face it, with the sixteen songs from the album plus four interpolations from her other work, something probably had to be cut), but it still seems odd, given that it was the only track from the album that was not performed…even the other bonus tracks, “New Romantics” and “You Are In Love”, were included. It also seems like something of a missed opportunity, because the Lewis Carroll-themed lyrics could have given rise to some fascinating stage images.
My second regret is that the album’s content was not performed in order, so it is nearly impossible to discern the story the album tells from the film alone. This might be understandable, given that programming in the interpolations from other albums would then have been rather awkward, and I certainly wouldn’t want to have seen them omitted, but we could have had a de facto film version of the exquisite little mini-musical heard on the album, and as fine as this film is, that seems like a regrettable lost opportunity.
But the only clear flaw in this film is the ending. Not the coda after the credits with Swift and her cats…that was undeniably adorable…but the actual musical finale. Ending the film with “Shake It Off”, which is easily the weakest track on the album, caused this otherwise thrilling film to conclude on a distinctly anticlimactic note. It was an impressive visual spectacle, to be sure, but as a musical finish it just feels underwhelming after all the brilliant music preceding it. It doesn’t even entirely make sense…”Shake It Off” may have been the album’s lead single, but it wasn’t even ultimately its biggest hit. Why not end the film with “Clean”, the actual closing track of the album, which is the resolution of its emotional arc and is cathartic enough to give the film a truly satisfying climax?
However, even with its less than completely fulfilling finale, this film is still a treasure. The current decade has been short on good concert films…there have been a few fine documentary films that featured musical portions, such as the Amy Winehouse biography Amy, but these were first and foremost documentaries that just happened to be about musical subjects and thus included the occasional bit of concert footage. When it comes to true concert films where the musical portions are the primary draw, the most prominent titles have featured Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus in her Hannah Montana persona, and One Direction before they matured into an actual good band. Indeed, the genre hadn’t produced a real masterpiece since the Rolling Stones documentary Shine a Light in 2008, which is all the more reason to be grateful that our era has finally produced a concert film that can truly stand with the all-time classics.