Before the coronavirus pandemic shut down much of the world on March 11, 2020, pop star Charli XCX was just a few months coming off a successful tour for her self-titled album Charli. After years of feeling creatively insecure, professionally unfulfilled, and out-of-place as a figure in the world of pop music, the woman born Charlotte Emma Aitchison had finally found her place as both a star and an artist.
With the support of a devoted LBGTQ+ community following the success of her music video for the song “Vroom Vroom,” Charli began focusing her energy on creating music that made her happy, as opposed to music that made the charts happy. Despite all the hit songs and the commercial success, Charli had had difficulty accepting and reckoning with her pop star identity. Finally, she had found a home.
Alone Together, a documentary by music video directors Bradley Bell and Pablo Jones-Soler (a.k.a. Bradley & Pablo), offers an intimate look at what happened when the COVID-19 pandemic took everything she had worked for away — or so it seemed.
Marooned in Los Angeles with her boyfriend and unable to see her family in London, most of her friends, or to go on tour, Charli succumbed to the same depression that befell many of us at the start of the pandemic and still ravages on for many to this day. Both devoted and addicted to her work, Charli made the decision to do something that seemed entirely unattainable: put together a new album in sixty-seven days, from her home.
While working towards an impossible goal, Charli charted the course live for her fans, allowing them firsthand access to her new work and her struggles both in putting it together and coping with pandemic isolation. The fascinating documentary is an honest, empathetic look at adapting to pandemic life, reckoning with our creative identities, and the positive power of fandom.
As a way to keep herself occupied and productive while also keeping in constant contact with her fans, Charli begins putting together the album How I’m Feeling Now (which successfully released on time on May 15, 2020). The sixty-seven-day process is a whirlwind of activity and emotions: learning how to use the software and music production equipment that was sent to her, working through creative slumps and setbacks, staying busy while keeping her mental health in check, and adapting to this unfamiliar everyday life being spent with her boyfriend.
But the process is also about the people all over the world who are beside her every step of the way including drag queens, teenagers, LGBTQ+ youth, and others looking for an escape from the real world, as many of them are stuck in home situations that are not supportive or conducive to their true selves. Charli opens herself up to them and offers a safe space, occasionally at the expense of her work ethic and comfort. She outsources lyrical help to fans on Instagram Live and commiserates with them over isolation, but also expresses difficulty in getting over writer’s block while being filmed for the world to see.
“I depend on work to make me feel like I’m a good person,” Charli admits at one point in Alone Together. “I don’t think I’m pretty enough. I don’t think I’m smart enough. I don’t think I’m interesting enough or funny enough of a person to function without my work.”
Her unabashed honesty about her deep-seated self-doubts allows Charli a through-line to her fans that other pop stars often cannot successfully attain. Though she films much of her life for the camera, what she says never comes off as a performance or a put-on. One of the crucial aspects of her relationship with her close-knit fan community of fans — dubbed the “Angels” — is that Charli revels in being a part of them, interacting with them at shows, and engaging with them online. So, when the pandemic hit and lockdowns ensued, she wanted to find a means to keep connected to her loyal Angels while unable to physically be there for them.
Charli’s passion for her fans and determination in her work ethic is inspirational, but the extremely online pop star isn’t afraid to get vulnerable about her occasionally unhealthy relationship to her art output. The pandemic hyper-focused Charli’s dependence on working and her inability to feel valued as a person beyond what she produces. It’s a sentiment that rings strikingly true for many other creatives grappling with imposter syndrome, declining mental health, and the ominous empty space opened up by lockdowns and quarantines. But Charli needs her fans as much as they need her, and together they’ve created an accepting new world where these fears and insecurities are shared openly and compassionately, if not given a panacea.
Thus, Alone Together exists both as a fascinating examination of artistic reckoning and the potentially beneficial impact of fandom. Where other pop star’s fans or “stans” are all too eager to use their celebrity devotion to destroy and taunt, Charli’s fans seemingly only want love, acceptance, and belonging — now more than ever.
Thoughtfully stitched together with Charli’s own video testimonials, Instagram posts, and live streams, plus glimpses into the lives of a handful of her devoted fans, Alone Together acts as less of a pandemic doc or music doc than a portrait of what can be created under communal strife. While producing music she hopes will bring people together on its own, Charli generates a lasting escape from more than just the coronavirus. Expertly blurring the lines between her pop star and real-life identities, Charli XCX genuinely understands that celebrity can sometimes be a force for good.