‘Taylor Swift: Eras Tour Movie’ Review: As Exhilarating as Concerts

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“When will Taylor Swift’s film career take off?” has been a question lurking in the back of a lot of people’s minds ever since she started getting her feet wet with bit parts in “The Giver” and “Valentine’s Day”… and then further limited herself to keeping her toes damp with “Cats” and “Amsterdam” cameos. But do we finally have an answer to that question now, or what? Nobody should suppose that “Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour” doesn’t count as establishing her as a movie star, just because it’s a straightforward rendering of an ongoing concert tour that’s soon to become the most successful in history. It’s 2 hours and 45 minutes of nearly nonstop acting, writ large for the back row of SoFi Stadium and, now, Imax and Dolby. What she might do with lengthy dialogue passages someday remains to be seen, but she’s already passing a $100 million screen test.

You could say that  all that expressiveness recalls the great sirens of the silent era. But silence is not considered to be golden in “The Eras Tour,” a film designed to be played loud enough that it could almost literally rock “PAW Patrol” and “Exorcist” sequels off neighboring screens. (The power of “Karma” compels you, and all that.) Powering all that volume here is an album-by-album celebration of pop music’s best unbroken 10-album run since the Beatles went 12-for-12 in a very different era. As director, Sam Wrench hasn’t really messed with what millions have already seen on stage (or watched via bootleg fan livestreams) this past spring and summer, apart from the addition of digital title cards that make it clear to less devoted viewers which “era” is being entered into — “Lover,” “Fearless,” “Folklore,” etc. Those chapter titles seem like kind of a superfluous sop to all the plus-ones that are about to be pulled into theaters by Swifties, as if casual viewers will really care whether their loved ones are screaming along to “Evermore” or “Reputation.” Serious fans won’t need these visual reminders, any more than a past generation needed written cues to distinguish “Abbey Road” from “Beatles for Sale.”

And serious fans know the setlist by heart: This might be the most spoiler-proof blockbuster of all time. Drag-alongs aside, you could probably guess that about a fourth of the audience for this film will have already seen the Eras Tour live… and the other three-quarters will have watched the crappy bootleg livestreams that ticketholders put out on the web each night, in part or in full. (Personally speaking, I caught the tour four times, but feel like it was five, accounting for the night I spent riveted to a fan stream of a show that carried on through a three-hour downpour in Nashville.) The only real spoiler anyone could offer, coming out of Wednesday’s L.A. premiere event, is which two numbers from the “surprise songs” segment she did acoustically each night were employed here in the film’s wild-card slots. The answer — are you ready for it? — is the winsome “Our Song,” from her teenaged debut, followed by the worrisome “You’re on Your Own, Kid,” from her latest release. In those two choices, separated by 16 years and calibrated for a sense of bookending and breadth, you get both extremes of Swift’s music: sheer jubilation, and high anxiety.

You know which mood is going to prevail in the end, but the emotional dynamics in getting there are quite a thing. The exhilaration generated by seeing “Eras Tour,” on stage or in cinemas, comes partly out of the darker places the songs and setpieces visit, even if Swift doesn’t say much between the songs to particularly reinforce their complexity. The audience is there to dance and cry, and to shout along with “What a shame she’s fucked in the head” (during the solo piano ballad “Champagne Problems”) as well as sing along with “Marry me, Juliet, you’ll never have to be alone” (in “Love Story”). There’s a reason Taylor Swift has felt like a one-woman pop renaissance over the last 16 years: she’s kind of a one-stop shopping source for a wide range of emotional needs, from the most elevating kind of anthems to truly dark and messed-up art-pop. For most fans, this show isn’t so much about watching her career flash before their eyes — although there’s that — but their own roller-coaster lives. It’s sort of Broadway, kind of psychotherapy/church, and all too well-executed.

And the movie doesn’t mess any of this up. Apart from maybe those digital title superimpositions, you’d be hard-pressed to point to any wrong moves Wrench makes in transferring the show from stage to screen. Obviously, fans get a lot more really, really close face-time with Swift, to the point where they might ask questions like: How is it possible that her hair gets a little moist, but we never see her actually break a sweat? There are greater elements to ponder via the intimacy a big screen provides of course, like how adept Swift is at singing through what sure feels like real anger in “All Too Well (10-Minute Version),” or charmingly miming the comic version of that in the funnier songs, from “Blank Space” to “Vigilante Shit.” And the film magnifies all of it, in a next-best-thing-to-being-there way (even though no one who missed it will completely shed their FOMO).

Much of the movie matches the kind of footage already seen up on the huge LED screens during the concerts; after all, there was already a crew there practically making a movie every night on the tour, even before Wrench’s own team came in. He and cinematographer Brett Turnbull don’t avoid the obvious shots, but they also have some wrinkles up their sleeves that startle you out of any sense you’re just watching those concert screens redux. For instance, overhead drone views of Swift in or around her faux cabin set during the “Folklore” segment are nearly vertigo-inducing… and used sparingly. There are some especially striking images when Swift goes to one of the corners of the diamond in the middle of the arena, and the camera catches her with her back seemingly to the audience, thousands of glowing wristbands lit up behind her. During “August,” when she’s twirling around in flowing white clothes — a fashionable version of the bedsheets she keeps referring to — it’s as if she’d left the stadium entirely for a moment and wandered into an enormous field of orange-and-blue fireflies. And it is (to quote a song that doesn’t get played) gorgeous.

A team of five editors gets credit for assembling all this work in such a hurry following a shoot at her U.S. tour finale in L.A. just two months ago. But the movie reflects the ethos Wrench has showed off in other concert films, like the recent “Billie Eilish Live at the O2,” in not cutting just to create excitement where it already exists. (If you saw his work on last year’s impressive Imax simulcast, “Brandi Carlile: In the Canyon Haze Live From Laurel Canyon,” you might even wish he’d gone a similar route and rendered some of Swift’s songs as long single takes, too, though that would have been radical for a stadium-show movie.) A healthy balance is struck between knowing there’s a hell of a lot to take in in this stage production and knowing that the thing we most want to take in is Swift herself, constantly acting out the lyrics for quick hits of comedy or tragedy… or just captured in her runway-strut mode.

The setpieces will provide instant nostalgia for Eras Tour attendees. On the solemn side, with the funereal “Ricochet,” her normally effusive hoofers help mourn her dead business relationships, dressed in black and looking down at their feet, as Swift becomes increasingly enraged over her own betrayal and burial. In “Tolerate It,” moviegoers get a much more closeup view of Swift and one of her backup performers reenacting a bitter dinner scene from “Citizen Kane,” with the singer finally crawling across a long table to confront her distant lover. (The screen clarity is strong enough that you can read the label on the wine bottle before she knocks it off the table.)

But these most melodramatic moments are outliers in a show meant to leave fans making the heart sign with their actual hearts, if not hands. The 21st-birthday-bummer ballad “All Too Well (10-Minute Version)” is, naturally, the solo-spotlight centerpiece of the show… offset by the 22nd-birthday giddiness and goofiness of the “22” gang-vocal that precedes it, in the “Red” portion of the concert. Now that she’s 33, the very best and worst parties of her young life sit together easily as part of a concert set.

The concert film is not a completely unexpurgated version of the show; the first viewers to see the movie quickly realized, to the chagrin of many, that a few numbers were cut, including “Cardigan” and, as seen in the final stretch of the tour, the Haim collaboration “No Body, No Crime.” Those of us who are not completists may not feel these were such terrible losses; two hours and 45 minutes in a theater space — the running time this ended up at — can feel about as long as the three hours and 25 that the Eras Tour sets ended up lasting in the end. But let the buyer beware: if “The Archer” is your ride-or-die Swift song, you may be in for an uncomfortable reckoning. It’ll probably pass.

What will remain is the sense of how Swift has pulled off something no other superstar really has: creating “bedroom pop” that feels Super Bowl-sized when translated to this massive a circumstance, but then can feel beautifully reductive again when it’s back to headphone time. Wrench’s cameras catch some young fans singing “I’m the problem, it’s me” during “Anti-Hero” — what director or editor could resist that? — and you’re reminded what a weirdly personal and peculiar number it is to have remained a runaway hit this past year. And what other pop superstar would follow that, as she does in the closing “Midnights” portion of the show, by singing about how she’s “only cryptic and Machiavellian ‘cause I care”? Swift is a “Mastermind” and a normie, in some kind of strange, inviting, equal measure. That’s something we’ll never get tired of studying in closeup.

So bring your friendship bracelets, your earplugs (if necessary) and your biggest, most nagging neuroses. Because there’s only going to be one real exorcist on movie screens this weekend, and her name is Taylor.

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