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View of the drive-in screen from my car
View of the drive-in screen from my car

Drive in Saturday Movie Review: Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour Film

Late in the season, the Jericho Drive in is in the midst of featuring one film over the span of several weeks— Taylor Swift’s concert movie, The Eras Tour Film. Much as was the case with one of the earlier movies of the season, Barbie, Eras is a cultural touchstone. It is also a document of America’s biggest musical star at the height of her prominence. That said, I have so little familiarity with Swift’s music that I only kind of recognized the refrain from a total of one song from her nearly-three hour set. So I did not experience the movie as a fan.

Did I like it? Yes. I’m not sure that I come away more likely to buy a Taylor Swift album, but I’d say this was one of the better concert movies I’ve ever seen as a visual spectacle, and as is the case with musicals, I always like seeing beautiful people singing and dancing.

And sure enough, Taylor Swift is a beautiful person. She’s uncommonly pretty in a way that seems to personify the American ideal. She also manages to thread the needle between being sexy and wholesome, which while not unique is also not common among those of her peers with whom I am familiar. I think that’s part of her appeal— like shapely female stars of the 1960s whose shapes, aside from their arms and legs, never, ever seemed to move, Swift manages to project a kind of innocence despite prancing around in skimpy, sequined outfits and casting coquettish pouts between verses. Her subject matter, too, seemed the stuff of a time in life when dating, breaking up and recovering from breakups seemed to be the pinnacle of importance.

Swift’s singing is pretty clear. I understood most of her words, which seemed straightforward to me, though some of the images from her elaborate dance numbers didn’t seem to exactly match the themes of the song. In one song, she and her dancers seemed to be dressed for Halloween, complete with glowing pumpkins. But the song, which I don’t remember, didn’t seem to be about that. No matter— the dance number was spectacular.

Actually, it wasn’t the dancing (or the music) that was most impressive. The set, which made the most out of high tech, was far and away the most impressive I have ever seen. My two points of comparison were Bowie’s Glass Spider tour set, which I saw two years before Swift was born (in 1987), and an opera I saw at the Salzburg Festival in Austria. Like the former example, Swift’s stage was huge, elaborate and a character in her show. Like the latter, Swift’s use of high-def screens, realistic animations and elaborate costumes made the show, well, cinematic. But Swift’s also made use of what appeared to be big holograms in a way I have never seen before. At one point, the entire stage was a giant snake. At another point, thousands of phantasmal red balloons floated up into nonexistence. At a third point, Swift appeared to dive into the stage, which appeared to have become water. I suppose all of this could have been added to the movie itself, but based on the crowd reaction, they seemed to be seeing the same things I was seeing. Somewhere, Bowie is kicking himself for leaving this plane of existence too early to do something like that!

Swift never seemed to tire, and never seemed to show anything other than the exactly appropriate facial expression. In addition to being pretty, her face is especially expressive. The high-def projections allowed her to communicate to the 70,000 in attendance as if she was a few feet in front of them. But her exaggerated moves also reminded me of 19th Century speakers who had to do the same thing in an age before either audio or visual amplification. So yes, as I was watching Taylor Swift, I was thinking of William Jennings Bryan.

Inevitably, I reflect on Swift as compared to Bowie, and I’m not the first to do so. Here and there I have seen them both cast as adaptable, and both characterized as superstars who transcend the role of singer into that of cultural phenomena. I found one story with the headline, “Taylor Swift is first star since David Bowie to get two number one albums in one year as Evermore tops chart” (her other number one from 2020 was called Folklore, while Bowie’s Blackstar and the compilation, Best of Bowie, both hit number one following his death in 2016). I came across a comparison between a poster promoting Folklore and one of Bowie promoting the live album, Stage (see the gallery). A New York Times story compared both Swift and Bowie to the 19th Century actress Sarah Bernhardt (click on her name for a link to the story). There’s actually quite a bit more out there comparing and contrasting the two, despite their never having collaborated and, to the best of my knowledge, neither covering any of the other’s songs.

I like the idea of Taylor Swift. I like the idea that we as a society can still elevate a star to shared experience. I saw a magazine cover of Swift with Paul McCartney, and it is fair for them to stand side-by-side. I have often felt that while people of the past 60 years are separated by time, space and life experience, many of us are united by a shared affection for Paul McCartney (who has been seen in concert both by many people born in the 19th Century, and many who will die in the 22nd). Swift might not quite be there yet, but she’s further along than anyone else of her generation.

So that said, and despite the superficial similarities of their spectacle and status as superstars, I’m seeing more different about Taylor Swift and David Bowie than I see commonality. To my ear, Swift’s voice is not especially distinctive. She is a homogenizer of cultures and styles whereas Bowie was more distinctive. While Swift sings straightforward songs about relationships, Bowie mostly sang oblique songs about heavier topics like isolation, death and time and space. Swift is the all-American girl, whereas even the most mainstream version of Bowie was subversive. The other thing that stood out was that Swift performed no covers, whereas Bowie often both performed and recorded covers. Bowie’s live performances often took liberties with his source material, whereas, despite not being familiar with Swift’s albums, I’m guessing she performed her songs almost exactly as they were recorded. To that extent, Swift’s show was really aimed at Swift’s fans, whereas Bowie would often dangle something familiar out to his audience as a way to lure them into his own esoterica.

For me, I prefer Bowie. But I was awfully entertained by the Swift show. Part of my curiosity was to see what the big deal was, and sure enough I saw it. I have had fun at the drive-in this year with some pretty forgettable movies. I won’t soon forget this one.

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