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Review: “Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour” is the most spectacular blockbuster of 2023
Baby, let the games begin
2023 has been rough for Hollywood in plenty of ways – historic labor disputes, the collapse of the streaming business model, etc. – but it’s actually been a pretty great year for the theatrical experience and the Hollywood blockbuster. Grand, imaginative, powerfully kinetic showstoppers like John Wick 4, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, and Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning are hardly common in any era, and we got all three in a manner of months, with the spectacular dual success of ‘Barbenheimer’ coming on their heels to deliver one of the clearest moments of cinematic monoculture of my lifetime. The film industry has ~plenty~ of problems, but as the superhero craze dies down, 2023 has proven there are filmmakers ready and willing to invent and deliver on the grandest canvases available, and that audiences are just as hungry for real spectacle and showmanship as ever.
It all kind of pales in comparison to Taylor Swift.
The Eras Tour on stage has clearly been something very special; whether you were someone lucky (and materially well-off) enough to actually attend one of the stadium shows, or were, like me, one of the millions following it via cell phone footage on TikTok and YouTube, Swift has blown past whatever peaks of pop cultural dominance we thought she already attained to grab the world’s attention via a spectacularly mounted stage show that is in many ways without precedent in the history of popular music. ‘Greatest Hits’ shows don’t usually come when an artist is just 33 years old, nor at the apex of their global popularity, but Swift’s always been one-of-a-kind, and she used her cultural and commercial capital to craft a career-spanning concert that’s somehow both impossibly grand and invitingly intimate.
The Eras Tour on film is making history in its own way, releasing as the tour is still ongoing around the world, and bypassing the Hollywood studio system entirely for an independent release through AMC Theaters distribution, a move that has already set a bold new precedent with Beyoncé following in Swift’s wake for a Renaissance Tour film in December. There is a rich and vibrant history of great, artistically significant concert films, like Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz or Jonathan Demme’s recently re-released Stop Making Sense, but they are almost always firmly past-tense, a document of a show that already happened and won’t come around again, at least not in the same form. The Eras Tour is resolutely of-the-moment, filmed just two months ago and seamlessly transplanting the fervor surrounding the stadium show into the multiplex, inviting a much broader – but no less enthusiastic – audience than would otherwise have access to come join the festivities. It is not a document of a tour that already happened, but the next stop along the way, the next stage in a story Swift is writing before our eyes, and as a piece of filmmaking, The Eras Tour is shockingly adept at making the viewer feel fully a part of the action.
This is a key difference between the film playing in theaters this weekend and past Taylor Swift concert films, like the 1989 and Reputation features released on Apple Music and Netflix. Based on those, I thought I knew what to expect from the experience: Hundreds of camera angles with constant and relentless editing, showing off the expense and grandeur of the tour without ever letting the viewer feel like they’re truly a part of it. The Eras Tour is better, sharper, and more effectively enveloping than that. Every cent of the massive budget spent on Swift’s stagecraft is up there on screen, yes, but there is a real artistry to the way it has all been captured and assembled, an electricity in the visuals, the edit, and the sound design that, when projected on a massive screen in a dark theater with big, booming sound genuinely feels like an out-of-body experience.
Director Sam Wrench certainly couldn’t ask for better material to work with, given the wondrous choreography and larger-than-life bombast of the stage show; Swift’s elongated light-up stage is a perfect match for big ‘scope’ widescreen images, and the frequent explosions of color provided by the audience and their LED wrist-bands look appropriately stunning on camera. But it’s a lot more than just pointing and shooting. Wrench has a real knack for finding the best angle for every moment, knowing when to go in close and when to take in the totality of the stadium, when to cut to overwhelmed fans in the audience and when to let Swift’s dancers and band members take our attention. The film looks gorgeous, its imagery frequently feeling much more bespoke than one would expect from the chaos of live multi-camera capture, and the editing is outstanding. My most frequent gripe with ‘pro shot’ versions of concerts or plays – including Swift’s past features – is how quickly they cut, how insistent they are on including every possible camera angle even if some are only there for a few scant frames, how often they lose the rhythm of the music and the choreography in trying to direct our attention to every corner of the performance. Wrench strikes a real balance here, ramping up the speed of the edit when the material invites it – “Ready for It” is dizzying – but just as (if not more) frequently slowing down and letting shots linger, allowing moments to breathe and fully express before moving on. The edit feels attuned to the music, to the energy of Swift’s performance, to the electricity of the crowd. When I’ve watched past Swift concert films, or those by other favorite artists like Bruce Springsteen, or stage musicals like the Disney+ presentation of Hamilton, I often find myself wanting to look somewhere else than what the camera and the edit have provided. The highest praise I can give to Wrench’s direction of The Eras Tour is that I pretty much always felt like I was looking at exactly what the moment called for, for three hours straight.
And of course, the underlying stage show itself is tremendous, spectacular and bombastic but also smart and playful and deeply felt. Virtually every staging of every song – and there are a lot of songs – is creative, clever, and eye-popping, with such outstanding deployment of costumes, props, sets, and choreography that this would actually be a great way to teach the principles of ‘mise-en-scene’ to film students. Swift is making an increasing push into filmmaking – in addition to her music videos, she’s signed a deal to direct a narrative feature for Searchlight – and you can see those instincts for visual storytelling manifesting here in her presentation of songs like “Tolerate It” or “Vigilante Shit,” transformed respectively into an intimate domestic drama and a Chicago-esque Bob Fosse number, both songs elevated by their marriage with this specific imagery and choreography. Those are two particular standouts for me, but the entire concert is at that level: I love the autumnal Wiccan atmosphere conjured for Evermore, the folksy liminal cabin of Folklore, the exuberant pop grandiosity of 1989, and the summer whimsy of Lover. Midnights in particular is born anew through the efforts of the stage show, taking one of Swift’s weaker and more inconsistent albums, whittling it down to the best pieces, and crafting a surreal, dream-like, psychosexual powerhouse. Swift and company also know when less is more; for the 10-minute version of “All Too Well,” they drop all the accoutrements entirely and focus solely on her singing. It is her best, most intricate, and most visually evocative set of lyrics, and Swift is never better in her phrasing and performance than when she lets it flow through her, so there’s really no point in layering anything else on top.
It is truly surreal, if you’ve been following the tour through iPhone clips, just how clear and lifelike the footage here is, but more surprising and impressive to me is the sound. It’s a treat to hear Swift’s vocals with real clarity, of course – and she’s a much better live singer now than she ever has been before, making a pretty big leap from the Reputation Tour performances to those heard here – but I was especially bowled over by the incredible live instrumentation that absolutely could not be heard on the fan captures. Swift’s touring band (which has also been recording the ‘Taylor’s Versions’ re-recordings of her earlier albums) is outstanding, and as finely choreographed as the whole show is (and has to be, for something of this scale), there is a real spontaneity and energy to their work that goes above and beyond what you hear on the studio albums. I first noticed it on the Fearless tracks, where Swift brings the guitarists on stage with her for “You Belong With Me,” and the pounding drums beneath “Love Story” give that song an intensity I’ve never heard in it before, but Reputation is the real standout. Several of those songs – “Look What You Made Me Do” especially – are pretty heavily re-arranged here, and they’re much more powerful than the original studio renditions, the live instrumentation bringing out a raw fury that was always the selling point of that album, but has never been this deeply felt. 1989 sounds tremendous as well – and makes me even more excited for the ‘Taylor’s Version’ re-recording coming later this month – and there’s an extra, particularly funky guitar lick on Midnights’ “Lavender Haze” that makes me love that song even more. I really hope Swift releases an album of the Eras Tour recordings at some point, because many of these performances are ones I would consider definitive, and the mix here is so good I want to appreciate it all on its own.
The Eras Tour is, simply put, a one-of-a-kind cinematic experience. Three hours of watching these incredible synesthetic images up on a big enveloping screen in the dark is sublime; over and over, I felt my spine tingling as chills ran down it, found myself gasping at the procession of images and their relation to the sound, as though this whole ‘film’ thing was new to me. It captures the raw, effervescent electricity of a great live show with real aplomb, and delivers the same kind of thrill as last year’s Top Gun: Maverick, or any other great cinematic spectacle driven by real feats of human endurance and bodily commitment – only this one, more so than most Hollywood action films, truly invites the viewer to participate. Without exaggeration, I can say I was still catching my breath as I sat down to write this review, and that my heart is still beating a few paces faster than normal as I approach the end. The silver screen has rarely seen a spectacle this magnificent.
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