“Framing Britney Spears” skips the more obvious title, “Free Britney,” the name of a fan-driven movement that’s ultimately the primary focus of this latest “The New York Times Presents” documentary. Although Spears’ career, and the media’s hounding of her, provide the backbone of the FX/Hulu presentation, there’s no escaping a tabloid tone despite the newspaper’s pedigree.
The film explores the controversy that has swirled around the pop star, and specifically the 13 years that her father, Jamie, has served as her conservator, exercising control over her daily affairs and financial decisions. She petitioned to have her father replaced from that role in August, and fans have seized on the situation, with critics arguing in the documentary that it reflects the misogyny that Spears has faced throughout her career.
The producers go from there back to Spears’ beginnings as a child star and subsequent explosion as a pop diva, including debate over the hyper-sexualized way in which she was presented. As the producers illustrate, Spears was subjected to questions about everything from her body to her virginity that seldom arose in coverage of boy bands, which gave way to intense tabloid scrutiny of her every move as she grew older.
No one in the media fares particularly well during this look back, from the paparazzi that chased Spears to latenight comics who lampooned her misfortunes to Diane Sawyer’s ABC interview with her. “Everyone wanted a piece of Britney,” one of the photographers admits.
Of course, just by producing “Framing Britney,” the Times — and yes, those covering the program — are taking pieces too. While the paper’s imprimatur brings high journalistic standards to the process, the producers play an anonymous message sent to the “Britney’s Gram” podcast, a call about Spears that “Framing Britney’s” producers acknowledge they couldn’t independently verify.
The podcast is indicative of the passion that supporters have exhibited on her behalf — a grass-roots effort that resembles a political campaign, as detailed in Rolling Stone. The final part of the documentary turns their role into the defining aspect of Spears’ story as it currently stands, revealing the intense devotion that can grow around online communities, setting aside the righteousness of the cause.
As former MTV VJ Dave Holmes notes, part of the enduring fascination with Spears likely stems from the fact that she has remained a mystery in many ways, despite growing up in the public eye. “We never knew her,” Holmes says. “We know her even less now.”
“Framing Britney Spears” doesn’t really penetrate that protective shell, but it does meticulously lay out the history and key players, as well as the way the conversation about her status has grown to encompass issues beyond just the particulars of Spears’ story. The more uncomfortable, slightly meta question is whether even serious attempts to examine the star’s fame and potential exploitation wind up participating in the process.
“Framing Britney Spears” premieres Feb. 5 at 10 p.m. ET on FX and Hulu.