Save for a couple of interesting moments, driving home 2 u is colorlessly sleek and fails to pierce the surface of the precocious star.
There is a certain type of film that’s essential to the point of being rote in the pop superstar playbook. Typically it arrives around a year or two after or amid the star’s meteoric ascent: an ostensibly candid documentary that’s necessary fodder for hungry stans and that, if viewers are lucky, might also actually offer new insight about who the star “really” is and how dizzying, debilitating, or exhilarating it is to become a global face. Justin Bieber has done it, Drake has done it, and most recently, Billie Eilish did it with last year’s The World’s A Little Blurry. Now, it’s Olivia Rodrigo’s turn with driving home 2 u, the new documentary streaming on Disney+, which seeks to offer this kind of snapshot for America’s most recently anointed generational singer.
With all of these films, the most necessary factor is a central character interesting enough to have captured the attention of the masses. It’s perhaps especially true in Rodrigo’s case, as someone who skyrocketed to stardom at a pace and age arguably unseen: Her debut single “drivers license” transformed her from a Disney Channel child actress into the youngest person ever to debut atop the Billboard Hot 100. And the song, along with her smash debut album SOUR that followed, captured youthful angst and heartbreak in such a visceral way that it entranced teens and nostalgic adults alike.
And yet, save for a couple of interesting moments, there isn’t much new insight on driving home 2 u. It’s a relatively mechanical and colorlessly sleek “documentary” that offers a making-of look at SOUR while following Rodrigo on a “road trip” — essentially roving drone shots of the star driving in a cutely-battered jeep — from Salt Lake City back to Los Angeles. driving home 2 u feels stale compared to its recent predecessors, most of which offer some compelling editorialized mixture of behind-the-scenes peeks at milestone moments, quotidian bits on tour or in the studio, and selective scenes of reflection and vulnerability that attempt to provide a window into the disorientations of fame.
Rodrigo’s film largely lacks these typical documentary beats; it’s constrained by a narrow conceit that offers little concrete sense of what the past year was actually like for her. It goes through the SOUR tracks one-by-one, intermixing footage of Rodrigo and producer Dan Nigro in the studio with interview moments that expound on the inspiration behind the songs. Each quick segment ends with a performance from Rodrigo, filmed in a different location on her road trip. If you’re a stan, it’s all pretty serviceable: The film essentially gives you a new VEVO-style live concert of SOUR.
Yet there are still some brief golden nuggets here for any fan of Rodrigo’s music, mostly in the studio scenes with Nigro. Rodrigo’s team had the forethought (likely anticipating lasting stardom after the immediate record-breaking success of “drivers license”) to set up a camera for presumably all of the SOUR production sessions, yielding a few fascinating glimpses into the creation of hit tracks. The biggest question is why the film didn’t rely more on these scenes, which provide the only truly candid moments of Rodrigo, rather than leaning on the manufactured road trip idea and the live performances. There is, for instance, a scene that depicts the stirrings of SOUR’s memorable opener “brutal,” a last-minute track that was written in a day because Rodrigo wanted to insert an “upbeat” song into the album.
“What’s that?” Rodrigo asks, as Nigro begins strumming what is immediately recognizable as the banger guitar riff that kicks off the album. “I don’t know,” he shrugs. “It’s cool,” Rodrigo replies, before humming and toying with what would become the chorus’s melody. A moment later, she ponders the idea of titling the song “brutal.” “And then the hook, the thing is like: ‘God! It’s brutal out here,’” she says, mirroring the delivery of the line that embodies the show-stopping opener.
In another scene, she records a part of “enough for you,” before suddenly stopping, looking upset. “It’s just like every other song I have on the record, just different words,” she laments. It’s a striking moment, seeing Rodrigo express anxiety over the very thing — indulging so fully and earnestly in heartache — that actually made listeners connect so strongly with her music.
And yet, therein lies the power of Rodrigo, something one can glean in flashes when she ruminates on songs in the documentary: Her music embodies raw teenage emotionality so acutely partly because she also has the maturity and shrewdness to be able to step outside of it. She can see it as the archetypal, even naive feelings of a certain age and experience, but nevertheless feels it unabashedly and toys with it in her work.
It’s a singer-songwriter quality that we enjoy and rightfully praise in Rodrigo’s work — and it’s worth noting that such positivity was only afforded to Rodrigo’s most clear predecessor, Taylor Swift, far later in her career, after “poptimism” set in more forcefully in the last decade. Of this reality, the knowing Rodrigo is also aware. “I think I just wanted to tell people what was going on in the depths of my heart and the back of my head in a way that was proud,” she says in the film, as a drone shot shows her arriving on the beaches of Los Angeles. “I think there’s something so powerful about that, especially as a young woman.”