On April 6, 2020, less than a month after the Los Angeles lockdown, pop star Charli XCX invited her fans to a Zoom call for a special announcement. After spending the last few weeks struggling to acclimatize to the anxieties of a closed world, she had decided to give herself a project to occupy herself: make a new album, just six months after the release of the famous album of 2019 charlie. To ensure that it would occupy almost every second of her new free time, she gave herself only five weeks to complete it. Knowing that her fans might also be looking for something to work on during a time of unknowns – while implicitly wanting people to hold her accountable – Charli noted that she would open up her creative process like she never had before: host Instagram Sessions live for lyrical brainstorming; ask for song remixes, singles art and music video help as needed.
Primarily produced with longtime collaborator AG Cook, the resulting album, how i feel now, endures as one of the few still exciting works from the early COVID era. It’s clearly informed by the isolated conditions in which it was made, but it’s not unduly weighed down by it. Punchy and cutting-edge, with the right amount of emotional rawness, it sounds like music meant to be tossed into a bedroom transformed into a world by a seemingly indefinite quarantine.
It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to learn that while the album was in the making, Charli was also carefully documenting the entire ordeal beyond regular Zoom calls and Instagram Live sessions. Using no-frills camera equipment loaned by frequent video collaborators Bradley Bell and Pablo Jones-Soler, Charli and her live manager, Sam Pringle, captured many hours of diaristic footage – including the length of the film. forms the basis of a gripping new documentary, alone togetherwhich is now available to stream and in a handful of theaters.
As most fans will want and probably expect, the film offers plenty of telltale flashes of musical creation and its expanses of frustrating dryness, which tend to be almost magically disrupted by sudden flashes of perfectly timed inspiration. But as exciting as it might be to watch Charli find brilliance in her makeshift living room studio, the music itself isn’t. alone togetherthe principal objective. He also often dwells on Charli’s new relationship, disputed because the maximum she and her boyfriend of seven years, Huck Kwong, have spent together consecutively was 11 days. And through plenty of screen recordings, it also focuses on the lives of many of Charli’s most dedicated fans. Due to fans’ addiction to how i feel nowThe creation of , this largely LGBTQIA+ cohort, often troubled by hostile living situations with their families and unemployment, generated meaningful connections with each other through the project at the same time as simply looking forward to a new album from a favorite artist. alone together is the rare music documentary that incorporates fan participation into its narrative constructed with meaningful consideration. If nothing else, the film is a moving testament to the power of music in general.
Corn alone together is most compelling when it functions as a portrait of an artist and her paradoxically constructive and destructive relationship with the music to which she devotes her life. It’s a dichotomy Charli seems genuinely interested in interrogating through the documentary medium that embraces confession. She admits to being a workaholic, forever detached from the thrills of life’s spontaneity as her mind is almost always trained on what’s next. With COVID putting this “next” in nebulous terms, she’s coming to understand the psychological consequences of her careerism, and that perhaps her chronic inability to be truly proud of what she’s achieved is more unhealthy than it seems. had believed it before. Charli’s growing outspokenness around her conceptions of herself, juxtaposed with the idolatry of her fans, creates an interesting tension. Devotion can be both a source of strength and intolerable pressure, the worry of being disappointed usually feeling more real than genuine assurances of support. I’d be curious to hear from Charli now how much, if at all, that has changed over the past two years.
The happy ending to these exhilarating yet brutal five weeks is that how i feel now didn’t come across as a quarantine doodle: this fully realized work ranks among Charli’s finest. The acclaim was universal; year-end roster appearances were steady. And creative conditions have thankfully eased since then. Charli’s next album, crashis slated for the next few months, undergoing a more conventional rollout, and will presumably reestablish its preferred way of absorbing as many featured artists onto an LP as possible to make it feel a bit like a party.
For those still working under the same professional conditions as at the start of the pandemic, there may be a relatable pleasure – more likely an empathetic pain – in stepping back in time to watch Charli at the end of the documentary make the album is do. She is alone in her dimly lit living room, without a shower and in a hoodie. Afterwards, she releases the finished LP on an overnight ride with Kwong instead of a traditional listening party. Even when you’re one of the big pop stars of your generation, releasing an album that definitively proves your almost flippant genius, you can’t escape the built-in anticlimaxes of working from home and plenty of room for self-doubt. alone together is as much a treasured snapshot of an artist turning her restlessness into art as it is a compelling document of a chilling time that is not yet fully behind us.
WHEN AMIN NAWABI, the subject of Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s new animated documentary To flee, he is asked what the word “home” means to him at the beginning of the film, this brings out several common ideas: security, peace, permanence. We learn, however, that for much of her life, home was more often an idyll than something lived. In the late 1980s, Nawabi and her family were forced to leave their native Kabul amid the First Afghan Civil War. They first landed in Russia and then, after a number of dangerous and thwarted attempts to withdraw from an increasingly hostile Moscow, finally settled permanently in different parts of Scandinavia.
Nawabi met Rasmussen as a teenager in Denmark, where school bus rides helped cultivate a close-knit friendship. While most others might lose touch after graduation, the two stayed in touch as Nawabi traveled to Princeton for her doctorate, with Rasmussen pursuing filmmaking. Yet despite their closeness, Nawabi was understandably hesitant to talk about her past with anyone, even her best friends. What repressed pain would she discharge? And how seriously would the person listening to him treat his experiences?
In To flee, Nawabi, now 36 and engaged to her boyfriend, decides it’s time to open up. He suppressed that part of himself for so long; he is uncomfortably restless. Directed by someone he knows he can trust, this documentary would be an opportunity to share his story in a meaningful way. What happens is, essentially, a series of taped conversations between Nawabi (himself a pseudonym) and Rasmussen. Instead of watching the former speak directly to the camera, we get long animated sequences bringing the interviews themselves and Nawabi’s memories to life. To flee unfolds like a striking self-portrait of a man and, more discreetly, a meditation on the countless lives forever disrupted by the brutalities of war and the cruel indifference of borders.
In addition to granting the subject the desired anonymity, the animation is an inspired stylistic touch, lending intimacy to Nawabi’s memories while evoking how memories can seem both abstract and sensorially vivid. When Nawabi’s reminiscences are most hazy, the animation temporarily unfolds in expressionistic gray swirls. And in Russia, where he and his family lived in such fear of deportation that they rarely left their apartment, we notice for example that the colors lose the sunny pop of the precious happy years in Afghanistan. But in To flee, the thoughtful visual presentation only accentuates an already emotionally urgent and introspective narrative of displacement – itself dovetailing with Nawabi coming to terms with an unaccepted sexuality in the place where he grew up – and the lasting ramifications these experiences have had on someone else in a safe place in their life. It may only be February, but To fleea must-watch, will more than likely be one of the best movies you’ll see this year.
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