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Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour

Directed by Sam Wrench
Produced by Taylor Swift
With: Taylor Swift, Mike Meadows, Max Bernstein, Paul Sidoti, Amos Heller, Matt Billingslea, Karina DePiano, Melanie Nyema, Kamilah Marshall, Jeslyn Gorman, Eliotte Woodford, Amanda Balen, Tori Evans, Raphael Thomas, Audrey Douglass, Kevin Scheitzbach, Jan Ravnik, Kameron Saunders, Taylor Banks, Natalie Peterson, Sydney Moss, Tamiya Lewis, Natalie Reid, Sam McWilliams, Whyley Yoshimura, Karen Chuang, Adaeze Cornelia Anane, and Bianka Bryant
Cinematography: Brett Turnbull
Editing: Guy Harding, Hamish Lyons, Rupa Rathod, Ben Wainwright-Pearce, Dom Whitworth, and Mark 'Reg' Wrench
Runtime: 169 min
Release Date: 12 October 2023
Aspect Ratio: 2.39 : 1
Color: Color

In 2023, Taylor Swift not only dominated the pop charts, the Grammies, the internet, and the National Football League(!); her movie became the highest-grossing concert film of all time, despite being released without a traditional distributor. Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour is described as a "cinematic rendering" of Swift's sixth headlining concert tour, conceptually embodying the artist's discography in 10 acts (or eras). It depicts performances of most of the songs on the tour's set list, though condensed down to a two-hour and forty-five-minute film. I missed out on the theatrical phenomena that this movie became when it played to devoted young fans in both multiplexes and arthouse cinemas. I heard the tales of teens and tweens dancing in the aisles, cheering and applauding just as if they were at a real concert. I wasn't sure if that would be an experience I'd enjoy or despise, so I opted out. Now, I regret not making the effort to witness and partake in this cultural event. I didn't see Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour until its extended three-and-a-half-hour version dropped on Disney+.

Regardless of which version I was to see, both running times seemed daunting, considering the only Taylor Swift song I knew at all was "Beautiful Ghosts," the track she and Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote for the 2019 film of Cats. I've been checked out of pop music since about 2014, and now I really only know pop songs if they're featured in a movie. But I have several friends who also didn't really know Swift but took their kids to see one of her four-hour shows (sometimes outdoors in the rain) and absolutely loved it. I also assumed that once I started watching the film, I would find one or two of the songs familiar—they'd be some of those ubiquitous tunes you know just from being alive at a certain point in time where you just don't know the artist's name. Yeah, no... That didn't happen. I knew zero of these songs.

However, being unfamiliar with Swift's music did not prevent me from thoroughly enjoying this movie. As someone who has produced and directed many ultra-low-budget multimedia shows and events, I'm always fascinated by what skilled live-event creators with unlimited resources can pull off, and this production is nothing short of incredible. Swift, her team, director Sam Wrench, and the folks who designed the stage, lighting, and video projections for the show build upon what megastars like Madonna and Michael Jackson did in the '80s and '90s. The constant sweep of movement, color, costumes, lights, and video make the entire show feel alive and thrilling.

The sensation of being on stage with the artist is far more immersive here than in any concert movie I've ever seen. More than any filmed document of this kind, Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour feels much less about capturing what it was like being in the crowd for an unforgettable night of music and instead manages to give the viewer a sense of what it might be like for the performer. So much so that it's distracting whenever Wrench and his large team of editors cut to close-ups of people in the audience. The most ingenious production element is the glowing wristbands everyone in the crowd seems to have been given, which provide synchronized lighting cues that illuminate the stadium all around the thrust stage. These small howling rectangles make it look like everyone in the crowd has their cell phone illuminated for the full duration of the show and knows when and how to turn them on and off in perfect unison. It's an ingenious piece of lighting design that enables a distinct type of visual connection between performer and crowd that is a thousand times more effective than any audience shots could ever be.

Swift is omnipresent; dominating every frame of this film except for those pesky audience cutaways. She's got a band, backup singers, and dancers, but she's unmistakably the whole show here. She's not only captured by seemingly dozens of invisible cameras filming for the benefit of the movie but also to create the elaborate live video art unfolding on a massive screen for the audience in LA's SoFi Stadium. It's not unusual to see three images of Swift in the same shot: the real performer, along with two, often mirrored, giant images of face or full frame towering behind the real her following exactly what she's doing on stage, just with that minor 3 or 4 frame delay that even video technicians working at this high level can't prevent.

As captivating as the overall effect is, I wouldn't call this an artistically rendered movie. With the exception of one long centerpiece number, I would estimate there is a cut every 1 to 3 seconds regardless of the tempo or style of the song, with the choice of shots and sequencing feeling neither totally random nor especially deliberate. But that seemingly automated editing style really doesn't matter. Likewise, I have no idea how much Swift and her band are actually singing and playing live and how much they are relying on support from the backing tracks that, I'm sure, drive the show and make each performance virtually identical on subsequent nights regardless of venue. None of that matters much, either. This isn't The Last Waltz or Stop Making Sense. Those iconic concert films feel like they're first and foremost about musicianship. In the case of Stop Making Sense (1984), the visual interpretation of the music comes a close second to the focus on the unique skills of the performers, with documenting the tour a more distant third goal. In the case of The Last Waltz (1978), capturing the musicianship and comradery of the various performers and documenting the band's final performance are the most important priorities. Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour, on the other hand, is about spectacle. It is about celebrating the power of this uniquely talented and savvy superstar.

As outlandish as it might seem for a 33-year-old artist to create a career retrospective showcasing her various "eras," it seems somewhat fitting when you think about (or learn about, in my case) her career. The prolific singer/songwriter had suspended touring when COVID-19 hit. During the lockdowns and slow reopenings, she produced three full albums of music (plus, apparently, she rerecorded two of her earlier records) without any concurrent touring. The Era's Tour was designed to combine those missing album-supporting tours into one massive concert broken into 10 chapters highlighting each of her albums. The international tour set several sales records, led to the imposition of price regulation and anti-scalping laws, upended ticket-seller Ticketmaster's monopoly, and boosted the economies of various nations post-lockdown.

Swift was equally shrewd when it came to the exhibition of this film, choosing to forgo the traditional distribution model of Hollywood in favor of dealing directly with theaters and cinema chains. Her decision to go this route coincided with the film industry all but shutting down due to the writer's and actors' guild strikes. The bookings of Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour caused film distributors and exhibitors to hastily rearrange release dates and schedules. When the dust cleared, Swift's movie easily topped the box office in the first weeks of its release and held steady for months, filling the coffers of cinemas still struggling to get back in the black between the end of the pandemic and the start of the strikes.

There is a sameness to the songs and performance style showcased here, but I was impressed at how captivated I was throughout the film's entire running time. True, I appreciated certain eras more than others, but I got more than sufficiently swept up in Swifty Mania. Whenever I watch a film made before I was born, I try to place myself in the mindset of "me if I'd been alive at the time," and I similarly did my best to watch this movie through my younger eyes. I have no doubt that if I had been in high school or college during any of the Taylor Swift eras, I would have loved these songs and might have found some of them as deeply personal as many in the audience of this show clearly do. For a movie and a performer to be able to reach back in time and connect with my younger self is a rare and special occurrence. I'm sure this film will be revived and reissued many times, and I will certainly make it a point to experience Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour in a theater with a big audience the next time I have a chance.

Twitter Capsule:

This "cinematic rendering" of a 33-year-old pop icon's career retrospective lives up to the hype. The highest-grossing concert movie of all time is unique among such films because it immerses the viewer in the perspective of the live performer rather than the of live audience.