SXSW ’21 – ‘Demi Lovato: Dancing With The Devil’ Dabbles In Unveiling A Struggle With Addiction and Other Demons

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Demi Lovato: Dancing With The Devil is a documentary that tries to be many things, but succeeds in one regard. It is an unsettling reminder that the people at the upper echelons of fame are not at all what they seem, especially Demi Lovato.

This documentary was born from disaster. At the time of Lovato’s overdose in 2018, another documentary was filming as she conducted her Tell Me You Love Me tour. As far as we can tell that documentary was in a way exposing the truth behind a facade of normalcy and sobriety that Lovato was selling, but the overdose proved that much of what was being filmed or said during that time was very much lies or just half-truths.

Lovato and her friends and family who appear in the documentary all express one thing that is deeply disturbing and enlightening in terms of revealing a subtle truth about addiction. Addicts are great liars. As no one in the film outrightly says, Lovato is a trained actress. On and off-screen she has been playing it cool for years. Lying constantly. However, the film has Lovato front and centre owning up to the deceit, and owning the truth that got her where she is right now. As it is demonstrated to us, this addiction is a constant battle and she is willing to acknowledge that there is a real possibility of her slipping up. Despite a newfound commitment to sobriety (or some sort of balance with alcohol and drug consumption), only time will tell if she can overcome that inscrutable desire to continue dancing with the devil.

This look into Lovato’s sobriety is hyper-focused. Dancing With The Devil is not concerned with painting a picture about rampant drug and alcohol abuse across the entertainment industry. It does not draw comparisons to other stars who have lost their lives to this disease (but there is an acknowledgement of Lovato surviving the 27 curse). This film doesn’t pull in statistics or attempt to place Lovato as an advocate or avatar of addiction or sobriety. Through this approach, we learn that there is a lot the young woman is carrying with her and that her journey is her own. As it is reiterated throughout the film, sobriety and the desire to be clean are not something one can do for others or because it is the “right” thing to do. It needs to be something they are willing to do for themselves.

Lovato is strongly urging others to see that she is going to make choices that feel right to her. No matter how contradictory they may seem, no matter the ominous warning from Elton John that “moderation” is just not possible, Lovato’s goal is to simply be in control of her choices. So much of her life has been controlled by others, leaving her with little room to make choices for herself, but now Lovato is taking that power back. Whether the choices she makes are good or bad for her, it will be hers to bear alone.

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The documentary also keeps it close to the source with who is brought in to speak about Demi, by including her family and friends, and key members of her team. Each individual does not mince their words in regards to how this addiction affected them personally, as addiction is as much a burden for others as it is for the individual suffering. There is a close-knit group of people who care about Demi and despite being fooled several times, still want what is best for her. This personal touch opens the eyes of those watching and highlights that even under the watchful eye of people who care, addicts still find ways to isolate themselves and hurt themselves. In plain sight, Demi was spiralling and although the red flags were up for some people, it was still too late. The question remains, how many chances does Lovato have with the people that love her and that she hurts? Time will tell. Documentarian Michael D. Ratner extrapolates from his subjects that there is going to be a limit to how much they can handle. It is important to illustrate to us that trust in an addict is not freely given, it must be earned through actions.

There is a further unveiling of Lovato’s struggles that are surprising but also aren’t. These revelations leave the door open for a bigger reckoning yet to come. Especially in regards to the institutional failure that brought up the young superstar and the individuals that took advantage of her. There are no names uttered in this documentary as this is entirely focused on Lovato coming to terms with her feelings and voice. It is a deliberate choice to drop key details of sexual assault from at least two individuals without naming them, a sign that there is more to uncover and unravel after this documentary premieres. As it is noted in the film, Lovato’s fans are rabid and eager to defend and please their idol, it is only a matter of time that they use their oddly efficient tactics to expose individuals. All this is to say that Demi has so much to say, but at this point, she is simply not ready and that is her choice. Finding peace with your trauma is a long journey and she is still working on it. However, this documentary doesn’t just expose her demons, it will expose others…eventually.

To further emphasize the intense focus on Lovato is the purpose of the doc, the reasons behind her breakup with her fiance are kept under wraps. (I don’t think she even uttered his name.) There is no mention of who surrounded Demi at the time of her overdose. She places no blame or offers any opinion on any individual that has wronged her in any way. Other than the people who needed to be in the documentary to provide information and clear their names, this documentary does not in any way step outside of Demi’s orbit. Her addiction, her eating disorder, her overdose, her sexual assault, her music, her life, this is all about her. No one else is needed to be mentioned or acknowledged because as this documentary portrays everything is still unfolding within her. She is still determining what certain people and events mean to her, trying to understand how they impacted her, and learning how to move forward. This struggle is hers and hers alone. As far as documentaries of this nature go, this one is clear about its subject matter.

While the documentary is illuminating and provides context to Demi’s lifelong struggle with drug and alcohol abuse as well as eating disorders, it is difficult not to see this documentary as a publicity stunt for the real unveiling of Demi’s emotional and mental state; her album. Borrowing the title of the doc, her album titled “Dancing With The Devil…The Art of Starting Over” is set to debut April 2. In the pieces of the doc Demi explains that one of her constants in remaining sober (or at least just okay) is her music, where she can express herself freely with her lyrics and singing. Through snippets of Demi playing “Sober” or her now-famous Grammy’s 2020 comeback performance of “Anybody”, it is evident more than ever that music is Demi’s saving grace. This is where the documentary sort of splinters from the dark revelations of the 2018 overdose. There is so much discussed about what led to Demi becoming addicted, the immediate fallout of the overdose, the ongoing struggle to remain sober after the fact, all of which makes the documentary feel like a jarring piece of advertisement when it does break away to discuss Demi the Artist. It is presented as a contrast to Demi the Addict when ultimately, they are one and the same. Demi’s music and how that helps her find her voice is an element of the documentary that should have been folded in much earlier and weaved throughout. The film also could have done without the inclusion of her new manager Scooter Braun, as he is also an executive producer and just adds to the disingenuous nature of the film.

However, as showy as this documentary is, it does get points for not only being focused, but being short and concise. It is broken up into four-parts, to give folks who may feel a bit heavy about what they are watching to hit pause and to sit with what they learned. There is some delicate animation inter-spliced throughout to illustrate horrific revelations. In addition, there is the title song “Dancing With The Devil” that plays throughout with clips that I assume are snippets of the accompanying music video. Oddly, enough the structure and flourishes make for an easy and breezy watch, allowing for the deeper issues to settle in without overwhelming our senses. It also just helps to make the talking head moments less tedious to get through. The framing, intimate setting, the animation, and the musical transitions invites us in, and attempts to give a clear, truer, and empathetic understanding of all that Demi is.

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A few questions that are not asked and would perhaps expose some of the intentions behind the documentary are: Can Demi Lovato find peace and sobriety away from the spotlight? Her love of music clear and evident but is there a way for her to find that fulfilment separate from being a celebrity? Is fame a contributing factor to her addictions or is it one of her vices as well? Demi Lovato’s harshest critic is herself, but as she lays bare all that darkness within her it is hard not to judge the more glaring of omissions in her pursuit of sobriety and happiness. Fame is a dangerous entity and eventually, she will have to have to reconcile with what she has sacrificed and lost for her profession. 

Ultimately, Dancing With The Devil follows a sad truth. That this girl who grew up under the spotlight is just as messed up as one would suspect. It is a sad realization that someone who does believe in using her platform to preach for openness and honesty when it comes to addiction and mental health has struggled to reflect that in her personal choices. This look into her world is only a fragment of what she is going through and there is no pretense that she has it figured out. Her dance shoes are still very much on.

Demi Lovato: Dancing With The Devil premieres on YouTube on March 23

by Ferdosa Abdi

Ferdosa (she/her) is a lifetime student of cinema. Three of her current favourite films are: Addams Family Values, Cinderella (2015), and Emma. (2020)On Twitter you can see her support women-led cinema, her ongoing love/hate relationship with Disney, her totally healthy obsession with Eva Green, and her great admiration for Guillermo del Toro.

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