Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
June 28, 2022

Olivia Rodrigo's driving home 2 u is a propaganda vehicle that fails to drive home its central aim

By SOPHIA PASALIS | April 4, 2022

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IMAGE GROUP LA/CC BY-ND 2.0

The documentary driving home 2 u (a SOUR film) follows singer-songwriter Olivia Rodrigo in her journey to create her album SOUR.

Released March 25 on Disney+, Olivia Rodrigo’s driving home 2 u (a SOUR film) tries to depict a sentimental homecoming for the celebrity but falls flat with its contrived authenticity. The film follows Rodrigo as she drives from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles, a trip she took many times while writing her debut album SOUR. The star stops at various locations along the route to perform the songs that appear on SOUR.

The film opens with a shot of Rodrigo lounging on a bare mattress. Heard through a voiceover, she asks, “How would I describe this chapter of my life?”

The unadorned mattress symbolizes nonchalance — as though this celebrity, seen through the profit-hungry lens of the Walt Disney Company, feels impassive about her image in the spotlight. With her head turned away from the window, a ray of sunlight illuminates the side of Rodrigo’s face, as though the caress of fame, this revolutionary “chapter” in her life, has left her true persona untouched.

The filmmakers cut to an older, vertical video of the first time Rodrigo heard her hit single “drivers license” on the radio. Seen in black in white, this clip possesses an acute nostalgia in the context of the film, a venture possible only after an astronomical rise to fame and a complete reorientation of her personal circumstances.

Throughout the film, Rodrigo discusses her break up from Joshua Bassett, whom she met while filming High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. She bemoans her experience of how quickly he moved on and how she realized that love occurs again and again.

Interestingly, the decision to focus on the meaning behind the songs detracts from her artistry. Rather than allowing her music to speak for itself, the film claims that Rodrigo’s album is as digestible and relatable as a friend’s plight, though likely most people watching the film do not know the artist personally.

Initially, Rodrigo’s relatability captured audiences. She crooned about commonly held experiences, like heartbreak, jealousy and of course, getting one’s driver’s license. This film clearly is an attempt for Rodrigo to reclaim her relatability, the very quality that helped catapult her into the spotlight.

However, Rodrigo’s relatability is inherently opulent. She drives a blue stick-shift Jeep. She performs in the outdoors, but with highly curated props and set design. She wears youthful outfits, combining feminine clothing with performatively edgy accessories that many of her viewers may not be able to afford to recreate.

The camera moves smoothly during her outdoor performances, beautifully integrating the natural scenery with her emotional delivery. Especially stunning is Rodrigo’s performance of “good 4 u” nestled between warm-toned canyons and a backing orchestral band.

The set design, though heavily focused on the Western United States’ landscape, incorporated manmade structures into the aesthetic. This device informed the influence of machinery and modern society on the artist’s music. Rodrigo’s work is inextricable from the engine of capitalism, in which she has commodified her heartbreak.

Despite the intentionally grainy visuals and Rodrigo’s seemingly tell-all explanations, the film fails to hide its own motives as a propaganda vehicle for perpetual branding. It attempts to speak to her young, digitally oriented audience that obsesses over image and presentation. Like the rest of us, her pursuit of the effortless cool-girl aesthetic indeed takes effort, even an entire production team. No amount of supposedly organic film footage or contrasting patterns can stand in for pure authenticity or effortlessness.

Yet Rodrigo exudes undeniable coolness outside of these contrived home-video moments when her work ethic becomes apparent. The most engaging parts of the film follow her collaboration with her producer Dan Nigro. In the studio, her passion for her craft is infectious and helps elucidate the behind-the-scenes production of her album.

The film ends with Rodrigo’s performance of “hope ur ok” on the beach beside a rocky mountain. As the song ends, Rodrigo, followed by the entire band, enters the water, freely splashing and laughing joyously. By displaying Rodrigo’s youthful spirit through movement, this moment possesses the liberated authenticity the rest of the film is searching for.

Ultimately, driving home 2 u, though visually appealing, lacks any genuine throughline of excitement to maintain engagement. The film wades in melancholy and nostalgia, but Rodrigo’s brand would benefit more from embracing her hopeful future and the endless possibilities that lie before her.

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