Shania Twain: Not Just a Girl
Shania Twain’s story is one steeped in a deep resilience in the face of personal tragedies, paying off in a career that redefined the magnitude of success that’s possible for women in the music industry. Whatever one might think of her music, Twain’s career is vital, as she thoroughly upended the sexual politics and shattered the aesthetic boundaries within country music, and she demonstrated a level of agency in her songwriting, performances, and music videos not seen so fully-realized in pop music outside of Madonna and Janet Jackson at their peaks.
Shania Twain: Not Just a Girl, a career-spanning documentary now on streaming on Netflix, does very little to emphasize any of that greater context or importance. Instead, director Joss Crowley intersperses fawning but largely substance-free talking head quotes from a small panel with a structured sit-down interview with Twain and with archival footage, much of which is available elsewhere online. The result is a shallow portrait of Twain and her career. Not Just A Girl amounts to little more than a 30 minute addendum to Twain’s episode of VH-1’s Behind The Music.
There’s a sharp contrast here between how Twain describes her own role in defining how she would be represented in visual media from the outset of her career– here, she describes the making of the “What Made You Say That” music video as a pivotal career moment– versus how passive her participation in this film comes across. Crowley gives her just a sentence apiece in response to a note about her childhood home being abusive and to her having no real opportunity to grieve her parents’ death. In contrast, her Diamond album certifications by the RIAA are repeated by fully half of the people who speak about her, giving the distinct impression that what matters about Twain is not her humanity but her commercial stats. Listening to Jon Landau and Kelsea Ballerini more or less read from Twain’s Wikipedia entry makes for a documentary that might be of marginal interest to casual audiences but doesn’t lean into why Twain’s story matters.
Orville Peck, when commenting on how he found Twain’s outsized image and her commanding presence to be a source of empowerment as a gay teenager, lands the film’s most salient points, while Ballerini notes a continuity from Twain’s songwriting style to Taylor Swift’s and then to her own. Diplo, an indefensible choice to speak on camera about any woman in the year 2022 but particularly about a woman whose career is so closely tied to matters of sexual agency and power dynamics, adds nothing of value to the conversation. In fact, he notes that what he admires most about Twain is that she doesn’t take a break, which Crowley inexplicably edits into the film after the segment about Twain’s hiatus from touring and recording to have her son, Eja.
Twain and her story simply deserve better than the cursory Not Just a Girl. There’s potential for interesting narratives in how she cut her teeth singing in both a rock band and a Vegas-style stage revue before committing to a career in country music, in the misogynist treatment she endured from Nashville insiders, in the actual input– so often discredited– that she had into the creation of the albums after her debut, and in her struggle to regain control of her voice after contracting Lyme Disease. But Crowley’s dogged commitment to a beat-by-beat chronology reduces each of those arcs to items on a bulleted list. Twain’s music has unjustly drawn criticism for a lack of substance, but Crowley and Not Just a Girl never attempt anything more than a surface-level overview that uses the word “empowerment” plenty of times without seeming to understand how it actually applies to Shania Twain.
Shania Twain: Not Just a Girl is currently streaming in the US on Netflix.