When we began lockdown a year ago, a popular meme went around informing people that William Shakespeare wrote King Lear while isolating amid the bubonic plague. As weeks and months went by, the meme was repurposed to compare writing King Lear to learning to bake bread or to putting on pants in the morning.
It’s still too early to tell how many great works of art have gestated during the COVID-19 lockdown, but I think we can mostly agree that whether you’ve spent these months attempting to be innovative or merely consistently cogent, creativity has been a grind.
A quirky artist’s quarantine creativity, relatably captured.
Alone Together, a new documentary from directing duo Bradley&Pablo, is not the King Lear of COVID-19, nor probably is the Charli XCX album it chronicles. The film is, however, an effectively resonant account of a certain kind of stir-crazy, claustrophobic pandemic process and the ways our collective sadness and restlessness have helped form unlikely communities.
Charlotte Emma Aitchison, more commonly known as Charli XCX, broke out in 2014 as a featured artist on Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” and with the ubiquitous “Boom Clap.” Her subsequent career has been marked by shifts in genre and tone and by a candor about her successes and failures that has earned her a rabid fan base, especially in the LGBTQ+ community.
After Charli goes through an assortment of early pandemic time-killers — cooking, drawing, yoga, canoodling with boyfriend Huck — she becomes bored and makes a decision that surprises both her label and her Angels, as the fan community is known. Despite lacking the necessary equipment and probably the technical know-how, Charli announces that she’s going to record an album in lockdown. In five weeks. Not only that, she’s going to crowdsource much of the process, letting her fans hear lyrics and demos at the earliest stages, vote on potential art and make videos.
Knowledge of Charli XCX’s body of work is fairly unnecessary to enjoy Alone Together, though it may help in terms of immediate immersion because Bradley&Pablo lead with the symbiotic relationship between singer and fans. As best as I can explain it, she’s exposed and vulnerable and she’s been open in her struggle for self-acceptance and this, for logical reasons, has struck a chord with an audience on a similar journey. She’s confessional with them. They’re confessional with her. An accepting virtual community grew, one that spread into the real world when there were still concerts and festivals and one that becomes a lifeline in COVID isolation.
If you’re not a Charli XCX fan — I came in knowing two or three singles — the fanaticism might seem initially odd and cacophonous in its cobbling of social media videos, online game avatars and general boundless excitement. But as the story progresses through the spring of 2020, it’s easy to understand and admire the relationship. By the end, I was caught up in the simplicity of — as the title suggests — lonely people trying to be less lonely as a virtually enabled unit, like a wheel with many spokes that just happens to have a famous person at the hub.
That famous person is exhaustingly and likably willing to show herself at her least glamorous, which is important because most of Alone Together is stitched from footage filmed by Charli and her two managers — executive producers Sam Pringle and Twiggy Rowley — who were quarantining with her. It’s webcam video and shaky cellphone imagery shot with no interest in focus, lighting or whether or not Huck has any desire to be filmed. She chronicles her writing and producing process, but also the aftermath of her therapy sessions, her late-night bedroom conversations with her boyfriend and her morning hygiene routine.
It’s just a matter of course that sometimes she’s silly, sometimes she’s self-important, sometimes she’s vaguely profound and all the while she’s breaking down in the same ways everybody was for months at a time.
To capture the “everybody,” the directors focus on six or seven Angels, each self-filming, each with their own lockdown difficulties, each finding little bits of joy and expression in getting to take part in Charli’s project. If the thing Charli is doing is arbitrary and contrived at times — would she have given herself a random deadline if she’d known the quarantine would stretch into summer and fall? — the moments with the fans usually aren’t; the exhilaration they express when Charli delivers a new demo or pops up unexpectedly in an Angels Zoom is pure.
The “civilians” perhaps deserve to be a bigger part of the documentary, more than just the subjects of fleeting vignettes, fleshed out 95 percent through their fandom. At the same time, Bradley&Pablo are cutting lots of corners in Charli’s process, as the documentary leaps from “I don’t have any equipment or skills!” to “Now I have lots of equipment and some skills!” to “I’ve only mixed two sounds out of 12 and it’s a disaster!” to “I can’t believe my album is coming out!”
It’s the difference between being a solidly representative depiction of lockdown isolation and creativity, and being a definitive depiction. At only 67 minutes, Bradley&Pablo’s doc is aspiring much more to the former. Less brevity and more depth could possibly have yielded a superior movie, but Alone Together may be an example of a documentary better served by leaving fans wanting more than making casually curious viewers want less.
Venue: SXSW (Headliners)
Producers: Ross Levine, Brian Ferenchik, Emmie Lichtenberg
Executive Producers: Charli XCX, Sam Pringle, Twiggy Rowley
Jessica Wu Calder, Keith Calder