The BFI Flare Festival isn’t normally a place you’d expect to find mainstream pop stars. This annual showcasing of LGBTQ+ cinema is normally an eclectic, unpredictable melting pot of filmmakers and actors from the margins, full of people and stories that you’re unlikely to find elsewhere.
But this year the festival has Charlotte Aitchison, better known as pop icon Charli XCX. The singer, who is a vocal ally of the LGBTQ+ community, spent five weeks of lockdown in 2020 writing an album, How I’m Feeling Now, in semi-collaboration with her fans. The process was captured on film and Charli XCX: Alone Together, shown at BFI Flare 2022, is the result.
At first, the result is unpromising. It’s the debut documentary of Bradley Bell and Pablo Jones-Soler, best known for directing music videos as Bradley & Pablo. They also have experience in animated short films, which may explain why Alone Together opens with an animated sequence featuring glowing skyscrapers, floating luminescent squids and levitating people – a strange hybrid of League of Legends, Blade Runner 2049 and The Craft (1996).
It’s followed by a montage of music videos, live performances and home video, while Aitchison delivers a rather bored-sounding narration of her life and career. At some points, it feels closer to a PR puff piece than a documentary feature, and it’s hard to imagine anyone enjoying it who isn’t already a die-hard fan.
The more we hear from the fans, however, the more nuanced and interesting the viewing experience becomes. Many of the “Angels”, as they’re known amongst themselves, are LGBTQ+, and many have struggled during lockdown.
There’s drag queen Poison Oakland, whose shows have been cancelled, Ronald, who is unable to safely express himself in his Mexican hometown, and Zoe, a trans woman who is stuck at home with parents who don’t accept her – to name just a few. Depression and boredom are spreading, and one of the few things giving this diverse group a sense of community and belonging is their love for Aitchison’s music.
As one fan explains, over a video of her dancing in her bedroom to the artist’s latest single, COLON “Just having something to feel like [we’re] a part of, and to contribute to and talk about, has definitely been a really bright part of it.” And when Ronald – who struggles to find friends “in real life” – organises a Charli XCX-themed virtual party, even the most hardened cynic will struggle not to be caught up in the excitement.
Aitchison, meanwhile, becomes messier and more flawed – and is all the more likeable for it – as the documentary progresses. Candid, home-made clips show her struggling with headsets and microphones, trying out different melodies, and taking a break to paint rocks at her kitchen table. (“My therapist said I had to do it,” she says, cheerfully.)
But despite Aitchison’s therapy sessions – over the phone, of course, since she can’t meet with her therapist in person – lockdown, and the pressure of making an album in just over a month, both take their toll.
“I know I do deserve to be good enough,” she says, having been reduced to sobbing in front of a shaking camera, “but my core inside me doesn’t want me to, doesn’t believe that it’s true.” In fact, she often feels “like a liar” for not being the “confident and inspiring” person the world expects. It’s an understated, poignant reminder that anyone can struggle with their mental health, and doing it in front of millions of online followers certainly doesn’t make things easier.
This moment, along with the rest of Alone Together’s best sections, is one of its most seemingly authentic. There are no fancy effects, no out-of-nowhere animation; just one or two people, in their room or out for a walk, on a webcam or with a camera or smartphone that they aren’t even trying to hold steady. Whether that person is the successful pop star or one of her ‘normal’ fans, it’s in these moments that we see and hear real human beings, their lives and insecurities, and their plans for a quarantine-free future.
Because of them, despite its flaws, Charli XCX: Alone Together is a fun, usually interesting and often relatable addition to this year’s BFI Flare catalogue – one which the Angels will understandably treasure throughout their lives. For those who aren’t already in that club, however, it’s unlikely to have the same impact.
Charli XCX: Alone Together will be released in UK cinemas on April 14 2022.