“Hi, I’m Olivia Rodrigo,” says a tiny kid with a microphone and bangs in what looks like home video footage. She exhales loudly, then clarifies: “From California.”
The clip in question finishes out the montage of music videos, interviews and live performances that opens OLIVIA RODRIGO: driving home 2 u (a SOUR film), a mouthful of a new Disney+ project from director Stacey Lee. The film is a supplement to the now 19-year-old Rodrigo’s smash album SOUR, which appeared in the midst of her whirlwind 2021—a year that began with her still best known as the star of the Disney+ series High School Musical: The Musical: The Series (mouthfuls all around), and ended with her named TIME’s Entertainer of the Year.
SOUR is an 11-track project that the Temecula-raised singer-songwriter recorded with producer Dan Nigro at the top of last year, broadly chronicling the emotional aftermath of a much-speculated-about breakup—and, to a lesser (but still notable) extent, being a famous teenager. The album earned Rodrigo a whopping seven Grammy nominations. Among them is the coveted Album of the Year, where SOUR will compete against more established heavy hitters like Taylor Swift, Billie Eilish and Kanye West.
Through that lens, while some viewers might be surprised that a film about Rodrigo is showing up this early, its timing might be interpreted as an attempt to beat the Recording Academy to the punch—to let the record show that this is what SOUR meant to its creator, and what it will probably continue to mean no matter what happens in a week and a half.
“I just wanna sing a little song to my friends and family out there…starting now,” continues Tiny Olivia Rodrigo before we permanently link up with her adult self. Over the next 70 or so minutes, the latter takes us through each of SOUR’s tracks, performing them live with an all-women band on a handful of stops between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles, the stretch that apparently saw her write a sizable chunk of the album. The film is less a making-of documentary than a concert film with expository interludes between songs, wherein Rodrigo offers behind-the-scenes anecdotes (e.g. that “brutal” was only tacked onto the album at the last minute, nightmare fodder for this reviewer) and insight into her writing process. As she puts it, it’s a chance to “play the songs in these places that meant so much to me—and revisit them with older eyes.”
Rodrigo’s songwriting chops have been the main focus of much of the press surrounding her rise to fame, as she wrote or co-wrote the entirety of SOUR. (We’re told that the album only started to become one in January of 2021, shortly after “drivers license” topped the Billboard Hot 100 and the momentum was clearly not worth squandering, helping to force the hand of her allegedly reluctant label.) Her M.O. as a wordsmith is one of brutal honesty; she’ll sing that she hopes her unnamed ex is doing well, but like…within reason, and she doesn’t seem afraid to play unhinged when the art calls for it. Out of faithfulness to her pen, she performs SOUR in the order that it was written rather than the order in which it was packaged.
The performances themselves are the film’s biggest highlight, the songs having been given entirely new arrangements for the occasion. There’s a supercharged take on the usually mellow “jealousy, jealousy,” whereas “good 4 u” gets a beautiful (if somewhat less cathartic) string arrangement. Being Rodrigo’s first big single, “drivers license” is set to a montage of the track as it blossoms from a work-in-progress into a record-breaking cultural phenomenon. Even putting the music aside, however, the actual set-ups here are often breathtaking, scattered as they are mostly throughout the desert. For example, “brutal” is performed inside a former commercial jet that’s been retired to the Mojave airplane boneyard, left to grow over with vines. The effect is almost post-apocalyptic, or at the very least in keeping with the song’s alienation vibe.
Outside of the performances, though, this same sense of staginess often comes off as, well, staged. The heart-to-heart she has with friend Jacob Collier while sitting on the hood of a car, the actual heart she draws in the condensation on her motel bathroom window, the frolicking in the ocean she does with her band members to celebrate reaching the project’s end. It’s a recurring creative choice that feels strangely at odds with the warts-and-all ethos of the album, where the focus is otherwise on Rodrigo’s distinguishing genuineness. The documentary segments are narrowly saved by the fly-on-the-wall footage that she and Nigro managed to take of their recording sessions in early 2021, which provides an indispensable look at the star doing what she does best: Being vulnerable, and then setting that vulnerability to music.
That said, her music takes a minor hit as Disney+ opts to mute choice swear words on SOUR, ones that were headline-making upon the album’s release. Rodrigo therefore joins the growing list of artists who’ve had their lyrics tampered with by the streamer for its original music specials. She’s in good company here—the list also includes her idol, Swift, as well as her peer, Eilish—but it’s a curious look for the House of Mouse to dull the edge of a project whose edginess has been so good to it in the last year and a change, PR-wise as much as commercially. Further brow-raising is the fact that Peter Jackson and the Beatles’ surviving members successfully fought to keep the F-bombs intact in last year’s Get Back, bringing to light how flimsy the platform’s rules are in the first place. (With 2020’s Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda fell somewhere in between the two poles.) In the case of SOUR, multiple moments on the album don’t hit quite the same without certain curses, and taken in context with the streamer’s other music specials, it feels like there wasn’t any good reason for that. Whether Rodrigo’s fans will actually care is hard to say.
Speaking of whom, in addition to the film serving a kind of smartly self-preservationist function, driving home 2 u doubles as a gift to the Livies. There isn’t really any attempt to catch the rest of us up on Rodrigo so that we can fully sink into her shrewd meditations on child stardom (she’s been famous since she was a preteen) or understand her allusions to the “drama” that swirled around the album’s release (very much back in the news this week). So if you’re a mere cursory listener hoping for gossip, explicit record-correcting or helpful biography, you won’t find it.
Make no mistake, there’s some great stuff about SOUR itself in Lee’s film, to say nothing of its uber-talented maker and the undeniably exciting career ahead of her. But when Tiny Olivia Rodrigo tells the camera that she just wants to “sing a little song to my friends and family out there,” it turns out to be as much a thesis statement for the film as a cute family keepsake.
Director: Stacey Lee
Release Date: March 25, 2022 (Disney+)
Sydney Urbanek is a Toronto-based writer on movies, music videos, and things in between. She wrote her MA thesis on Jonas Åkerlund’s music video work. She also writes a newsletter called Mononym Mythology about mostly pop divas and their (visual) antics. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.