While the Covid-19 pandemic has felt like a creative dead zone for artists both famous and obscure, some have proven to be impervious to its effects. In the early days of the virus, back when uncertainty and despondency were in high supply and basic human needs were not, plenty of writers, filmmakers, musicians, illustrators, and creators of all kinds fell into an unproductive slump as a blanket of despair pulled itself over the world. Alternatively, some felt the opposite. All that new and unanticipated free time left them to think of only one thing: What’s next? In hindsight, these unexpected bursts of creativity resulted in some truly abysmal content-for-the-sake-of-content that probably shouldn’t have ever been released from quarantine — like Doug Liman’s Locked Down (2021), Sam Levinson’s Malcolm & Marie (2021), or the hokey Covid-centric seasons of dramatic television that have been airing throughout the past year or so.
It’s not all bad, however. Take Charli XCX’s fourth studio album, How I’m Feeling Now, for example: The experimental pop star set out to make the entire album from scratch in less than six weeks to meet a voluntary deadline of May 15, 2020 (the date California’s stay-at-home order was due to be lifted). With the new work arriving just eight months after her third LP, the incomparable British singing-songwriting sensation’s equally incomparable work ethic was not vanquished by Covid-19. Indeed, it was intensified by the pandemic. How I’m Feeling Now’s whirlwind writing and recording process, which took place entirely within Charli’s LA home, is captured and conveyed in Charli XCX: Alone Together — a brisk and effective 67-minute documentary from music-video duo Bradley Bell and Pablo Jones-Soler (stylized as “Bradley & Pablo” with a purple smiling face with horns emoji).
The doc begins with a 10-minute introduction that doubles as a debriefing for anyone unfamiliar with Charli XCX’s rise to fame (and a highlight reel for XCX fans, dubbed Angels). This prelude touches on all her chart-topping smash hits such as “Boom Clap” and “I Love It” and underground avant-pop favorites such as “Vroom Vroom'' and “Unlock It.” It splices home movies from Charli’s childhood (born Charlotte Aitchison), self-shot footage from her most recent year-long tour (cut short halfway through due to the onset of Covid), and webcam recordings of Angels talking about Charli’s impact on their lives as one of the most vocal LGBTQ+ allies in the music industry. Then Covid-19 hits, lockdowns are imposed, and, in between its Australian and American legs, the Charli Live Tour is canceled.
After passing the time with frequent Instagram Lives for the first couple weeks of the pandemic, Charli, quarantined in her historic Hollywood home with her two best friends — boyfriend Huck Kwong and a set of handheld digital cameras — is struck by an idea: She wants to write, record, mix, promote, release, and film music videos for an 11-track album in less than a month-and-a-half. (For context, this typically takes artists a year or more. Charli aims to accomplish it in about an eighth of that time.) What’s more, she wants to bring the Angels in on it: She wants their help with lyrics, videos, remixes, artwork — everything. It’s a thoroughly collaborative effort, and something that still feels invigoratingly fresh at a miserable time where nothing else compared.
Bradley & Pablo let Charli’s footage (and occasionally Huck’s) speak for itself, playing out like a performative, participatory documentary. The only element even resembling a traditional talking head is the occasional webcam footage of an Angel describing their experience during the stay-at-home orders and how Charli’s music has helped them — whether it be as an escape from a tense or unhappy home, a tool to embrace their true sexual identity, or simply as a soundtrack to their most cherished memories with other Angels. These intermittent asides are fine enough, but the really substantial stuff is what’s recorded by Charli and Huck as she lays down vocals in her living room, cries in her bedroom, lounges with her boyfriend, and works together on songs and visuals with her fans over social media and Zoom.
By compiling these five weeks of footage together without splicing in any sort of post-album commentary or reflections, Alone Together proves to be a uniquely raw behind-the-scenes document — one that pulls back the curtain to show a different side of an artist who so often plays it cool in her public persona. It’s incredibly revealing and quite humanizing to see Charli demonstrating behavior so antithetical to some of her biggest, baddest lyrics: Instead of hearing about the joys of going out, getting inebriated, and obtaining everything you’ve ever wanted, we see Charli stuck inside, struggling with her mental health, discussing how she feels bereft of talent and worth. As weak as the Angel segments are, Bradley & Pablo include fascinating bits of Charli’s process that prove just how integral her superfans were to the creation of How I’m Feeling Now — and to Charli’s sense of fulfillment as an artist. They might not add much to the documentary, but there’s no denying the Angels’ importance to her.
The finished album is utterly spectacular, by the way: How I’m Feeling Now is not only a fantastic addition to the Charli XCX catalog, but also a genuine musical feat that has no right being so good given the unprecedented circumstances in which it was born. It’s a maximalist masterclass in hyperpop, and it was created in a Los Angeles living room by a pop star in their pajamas. It’s DIY artistry through and through, but it’s so much more than that, too. It’s DIO: do-it-ourselves. A labor of love for both celebrity and audience, a gift to her greatest supporters that they helped to assemble. Only Charli — a performer with no equal, a pioneer of her niche genre — could have been capable of making such an urgent, personal work in such despairing times.
Bradley & Pablo’s Alone Together makes this claim clear, and it makes it crystal over the course of a runtime that’s just barely feature-length. This isn’t a problem, however. Like its subject’s catchiest songs, which often clock in at three minutes or less, there’s no need for more when what’s presented is so exquisite and compelling as it is. The release of Alone Together has been somewhat eclipsed by the rollout of Charli’s upcoming fifth studio album (dropping just a couple of months shy of How I’m Feeling Now’s second birthday). Perhaps there’s a reason for this: The Charli seen in the doc — vulnerable, self-conscious, uncertain — doesn’t look the same as the Charli seen in promotional material for the forthcoming LP Crash — tough, stone-faced, provocative. Thanks to the revelation that is Charli XCX: Alone Together, Angels know that the true Charli contains multitudes, but at the center of it all is a distinctive, disruptive icon who will never stop breaking the rules of what a pop star can be.
Charli XCX: Alone Together is now available to stream from Hulu and to rent from major online platforms.