The first time director Judy Hoffman goes in for a superstar close-up of Britney Spears in the rarely circulated 2002 documentary “Stages: Three Days in Mexico,” the performer is soldiering through yet another photo scrum in what was, already, a long, wearying line of press “events,” this time in a Mexico City Four Seasons banquet hall.
Bright, cold red, white and blue illumination from Pepsi’s sponsor signage provides the background, while a wall of flashbulbs lights up the foreground. Spears, then 20 and at the end of a grueling world tour, smiles and holds it, just as filmmaker Hoffman, who teaches film studies at the University of Chicago, and her legendary cinematographer, documentary pioneer Albert Maysles, hold the shot just long enough for a question to form in the viewer’s mind: How long has this hard-working, indelible pop export, this culturally necessary boy-band antidote, held that smile, exactly? A minute? An entire world tour?
Half a lifetime ago, did Spears have any space in her relentlessly managed stardom for a moment’s true peace?
“Stages: Three Days in Mexico” is a concert movie only occasionally, and in name only. It will be screened virtually, free of charge, on Thursday in a 8 p.m. ET presentation sponsored by the University of Chicago’s Film Studies Center. Hoffman will be interviewed by National Public Radio cultural correspondent Neda Ulaby. Viewers can catch both film and discussion at twitch.tv/filmstudiescenter, and a Twitch account is not required.
Produced to accompany a mass-market Spears photo album aimed at her enormous fan base for 2002 holiday shopping, it’s a peculiar and touching hour-long account of her life that year, in the wake of the Justin Timberlake breakup and in the grip of fame. Hoffman, a longtime affiliate of Kartemquin Films, was a highly unlikely choice for a backstage-with-Britney project. Much of the footage is deliberately mundane: Spears going over performance logistics, getting her hair and makeup done, waving to fans, suffering the verbal ogling of male reporters, rehearsing with backup dancers, calling home to her mother.
Hoffman owes it all to her hairdresser.
“It’s a real Hollywood story,” she says, wryly. “I was introduced to Jim Forni by the man who did my hair. He told Jim he had to meet this woman who teaches film.” Forni ended up in Hoffman’s class, and when that was over, Forni told her: “One day we’re going to do a film on Britney Spears together.”
Forni, you see, managed Spears’s website. He was friendly with Spears’s mother, Lynne. And that’s how Forni ended up as executive producer, after hiring Hoffman to direct.
Hoffman had already met Maysles, who received credits on “Three Days in Mexico” as “consulting filmmaker” as well as cinematographer (with Jim Morrissette) and camera operator. WIth his brother, David, Maysles redefined the parameters and intentions of nonfiction filmmaking with “Salesman” (1969), “Gimme Shelter” (1970), “Grey Gardens” (1975) and others.
For a striking compare-and-contrast exercise in how musical fame treats four men versus one woman, try watching “Three Days in Mexico” immediately after the Maysles’ “The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit” (1990), a reworked version of their 1964 film “What’s Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A.” For the Fab Four, the world was their dizzy, seductive oyster. For Spears, superstardom created a more isolating sphere of loneliness.
Things were instantly difficult when Hoffman and Maysles got to Mexico City in the summer of 2002, though not because of the film’s subject. Hoffman recalls spending two of her available five days stuck in negotiations with Jive Records, now owned by RCA Records, whose representatives apparently hadn’t been told about the documentary project. Spears’ label agreed to the filmmakers’ access requests, with conditions: They couldn’t show their big star smoking or drinking. Or drinking anything other than Pepsi products.
“The Coke vending machines had to be wheeled out of the Four Seasons,” Hoffman recalls.
Also, because Samsung sponsored the world tour, every time Spears was filmed talking on her Motorola flip phone, an expensive post-production “wipe” had to be done by a Canadian effects house to blur out the brand name. It looks like Spears is “talking into a dirty Kotex pad,” Hoffman notes, dryly. “And that cost a lot of money to do.”
Hoffman and Maysles made the decision not to interview Spears for the movie; it’s behavior, not questions being answered, and better for it. Later, Hoffman videotaped an interview conducted at Spears’ brother’s Lower East Side loft in New York City. None of that footage made it into the final cut.
“We did interviews with other people, but not with Brit,” Hoffman says.” What they were doing, she says, wasn’t by her defintion cinema verite. “Cinema verite is where the camera provokes, OK? If you’ve seen ‘Chronicle of a Summer’ by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin, you see the camera provoking people into action. And I suppose the ‘Borat’ films are verite, because the camera provokes people.”
Hoffman contrasts that with direct cinema, which is “more observational, following a character who has something unresolved.” To her, “Three Days in Mexico” fits that definition, whether the unresolved issue is an electrical storm or something, some want or need, in Spears’s interior life.
It was “weird,” she says, for a progressive documentary filmmaker to get hired to do a Britney Spears road movie that essentially dropped off the map after the 2002 photo albums were shipped and sold and then forgotten.
“It was certainly out of keeping (with) the marketing tool they might’ve wanted,” Hoffman says of her film. I was paid well for it, and then it went away. And that was it, until suddenly, all these years later, the #FreeBritney movement starts, and The New York Times movie comes out (”Framing Britney Spears,” about Spears’s highly controversial conservatorship and her struggle to regain control of her career). All of a sudden, the film I did in 2002 was being talked about again. I did watch the (other) film. I thought it was OK. It clearly lacked Britney. And it was clearly advocacy journalism, made for TV.”
There’s one scene in her own Spears film that sticks with her. “She’s in the hotel room, ordering corn chowder. And she sits there, eating it, alone. The room service guy asks her to sign the bill, though it’s pretty clear he knows who she is, and she doesn’t really need to sign for it. And then she’s alone. That kind of loneliness — that was so sad to me.”
But “I also wanted to make sure we showed what a hard worker she is,” Hoffman says. “I wanted to show the sheer labor involved with performance. Brit was just so dedicated to this whole constructed world, built for her and around her.”
WHERE TO WATCH
‘Stages: Three Days in Mexico,’ screening and discussion with director Judy Hoffman and National Public Radio cultural correspondent Neda Ulaby, 8 p.m. ET Thursday at twitch.tv/filmstudiescenter. A Twitch account is not required to watch the film or the discussion. Presented by University of Chicago Film Studies Center, Department of Cinema and Media Studies. Free.
©2021 Chicago Tribune.
Visit at chicagotribune.com.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.