With the onslaught of a whopping 94 new Christmas movies on various networks and streaming services this holiday season, it’s easy to forget that there’s actually some other content out there. That includes two new performance movies from singers Taylor Swift and Shawn Mendes.
Mendes’ movie, streaming on Netflix, is the more heavily produced of the two offerings. Shawn Mendes: In Wonder follows the 22-year-old Canadian heartthrob through three months of ups and downs and everything else as he performs on stage, struggles with his voice, connects with superstar girlfriend Camila Cabello and ponders the musical journey he’s taken.
Through it all, Mendes comes across as a young everyman—albeit one with the power to make audiences squeal with delight when he appears onstage—who’s dedicated to making the most of the gifts and opportunities he’s been given. “I’m just a guy and love music,” he tells us early on before taking the stage before an arena full of devout fans.
Though we see some of Mendes’ struggles with superstardom—exhaustion, vocal struggles—the way he’s presented here feels more hagiographic than grittily revealing. Scenes shift between concert footage and hotel reveries where Mendes reflects quietly on the meaning of it all.
It’s the kind of presentation that fans—especially younger ones—will likely love. More thoughtful observers might note that the film doesn’t deliver much that’s particularly revelatory. Billboard reviewer Robyn Bahr put it this way:
Although the film refrains from explicit religiosity, In Wonder carries the floaty, feel-good harmoniousness of a faith-based flick. Mendes comes off as an upbeat youth pastor continuously imploring his flock to follow their dreams.
That said, veteran music video director Grant Singer teases viewers with a gratuitous glimpse of a pensive Mendes in the shower (we see him from mid-torso up), eyes closed, weary and thoughtful. Also not youth pastor-esque are profanities including f- and s-words in the dialogue.
As for Taylor Swift’s movie on Disney+, Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions, it’s a different thing altogether. Taylor’s not striving to climb into the upper echelons of pop royalty, as Mendes still is. She reached those lofty heights long ago, and now she has the luxury of doing whatever she wants—which is exactly what she did earlier this year with the release of her eighth album Folklore, a moody, introspective, acoustic and altogether different effort than anything she’s done in a long time.
Those differences stem from the fact that it was written entirely isolation as Swift collaborated with artists such as former fun. guitarist Jack Antonoff and The National’s Aaron Dessner. This nearly two-hour performance film finds the three of them gathering in upstate New York in an intimate studio setting to perform these songs together for the first time in person.
If you’ve ever seen VH1’s old series Storytellers (which, admittedly, aired the last of its 98 episodes back in 2015), you’ll have a good idea of what to expect here. Taylor and her collaborators intersperse performances of her songs with leisurely conversations about their meaning and inspiration over glasses of wine and whiskey.
Those who haven’t paid attention to Taylor lately might be surprised (as might some Disney+ subscribers) at Taylor’s fairly frequent use of the s-word throughout—both in songs and in her conversation. That habit, along with Swift’s casual mentions of former “lovers” (again, in her music and in her dialogue), are the main things parents should be aware of here.
Watching both of these documentaries (if we can stretch that word to accommodate these performance-oriented movies), you can’t help but marvel at how downright likable both of these stars are. Their charisma and their stories feel magnetic—even when they’re not even trying. Swift, especially, has a poet’s eye for detail with the way she focuses on her emotions, tossing off lines like “You know it still hurts underneath the scars where they pulled me apart,” and, “Your faithless love is the only hoax I believe.”
If the two movies differ in approach and style, where they converge is in how they romanticize their respective subjects. Swift and Mendes effortlessly embody the seductively powerful appeal of being an artist. I’m 50, and these movies (more Taylor’s, to be honest) stirred some long dormant desire in me to be a musician. (Don’t worry: I’m not quitting my day job.) Fans will likely love these performances, while budding singer-songwriters may well watch movies like these and think, “That’s what I want to do.” They both succeed at stirring yearnings about passion, calling and pursuing our gifts wholeheartedly.
That’s not a bad thing. But it’s important for us as parents to recognize how stories like the ones that Swift and Mendes tell here can profoundly reinforce similar dreams in the hearts of aspiring young performers. The allure of fame, paired with the parallel allure of artistic expression, can be a powerful dream indeed.
Taylor Swift and Shawn Mendes have both lived that dream. I suspect that both would say it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Still, even the folks who helped them make these documentaries don’t really believe them when they say that.