Heartbreak: that shattering, heart-wrenching feeling that can turn even the happiest utopia into a dark apocalyptic place. Global star Olivia Rodrigo channeled this feeling to create record-breaking art, otherwise known as “Sour,” her debut album. From a child actor to achieving Billboard’s number one for five weeks straight, the 19-year-old singer has nearly taken over the music world. On March 25, Disney+ provided us with “driving home 2 u,” a documentary tracing her road to success and songwriting process. Without further ado, let’s dive in.
In the space of an hour or thereabouts, Rodrigo takes us on an emotional and evocative road trip from Salt Lake City, UT to Los Angeles. The artist used to make the round-trip back when she was filming “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.” As most of the songs in “Sour” were written between both cities, the documentary’s road trip format is both sensible and peculiar. On the trip, Rodrigo introduces us to her favorite cafes and diners, making for an immersive journey. In the interval, she gives live performances of her record’s songs in uncommon, sometimes uncomfortable environments — such as deserts and airport graveyards. In this endeavor, the singer gets to revisit her songs “with older eyes,” allowing her to reflect from a vantage point. According to director Stacey Lee, Rodrigo was very open to using those venues as the backdrops for the documentary. As the songstress just flew off for her first world tour, the will behind the film was to deliver fans with new arrangements of her songs, notably for those who won’t be able to make it to her upcoming concerts.
As consumers of music, we often listen to songs to relate to and understand what others are going through. In “driving home 2 u,” Rodrigo describes songwriting as “a form of expression,” a way to make sense of her emotions and more globally, the world. She shares some go-pro footage of the making of “Sour” in the studio. During these sequences, viewers are shown a selection of moments as the singer is recording in which she experiences a range of emotions — from pride to self-doubt and excitement. With hints of what was going through her head at the time she wrote the album, Rodrigo unveils the backstories of each of her iconic “Sour” songs, treating fans to heartfelt confessions. Her ability to put herself out there and display her bare standpoint most likely contributed to her building an impressive platform. Bringing light to that vulnerability was thus naturally the main tone of the documentary, without which it “would be doing the process a disservice.”
Further down the line, the singer opens up about the pressuring aftermath following the release of her hit single “driver’s license.” Exceeding a billion streams is phenomenal until you get asked for a follow-up. In this overwhelming state, Rodrigo admits that she was all the more driven to “put [her] best foot forward.” It seems that pushing herself turned out to be her Midas touch as she collected a series of nominations and awards, among them the winner of the International Song of the Year for “good 4 u” at the Brit Awards.
On a stylistic note, the vintage filter used in the docufilm is quite in harmony with Rodrigo’s universe. Tapping into the early 2000s, the 90s and the 60s, the songstress establishes herself as a fashion icon through a pop-punk, soft grunge, sometimes vintage rock indie style. Each performance had its treat for a new awe-inspiring outfit. Moreover, one symbol that is recurrent in her artistic taste and that appears in the film is butterflies. Wisely chosen, indeed, as the insect is associated with rebirth, hope and bravery. A definition in line with the growth that comes from heartbreak.
In my personal opinion, each of Rodrigo’s live performances outshines the original version. They fuse both the elating and unique rendition of a concert and the pristine fineness of a music video. To top that off, the tracklisting of the film is an emotional rollercoaster where the singer alternates between wistful, sad songs and more upbeat ones. Certainly, you often find yourself mystified about whether to sing along or gawk at the panoramic view. And then, Rodrigo’s voice comes along and breaks your heart with each resonating word.
Parallelly, Rodrigo gives us access to the recordings she keeps in her phone’s notes. The untitled song featuring the words “crying in the parking lot,” the first one recorded with her ingenious producer Dan Nigo and “baby is you,” the song broadcast in the credits, are unreleased songs revealed in the film. Interestingly, she plans to keep it that way, which contributes to making them even more memorable. Releasing unheard snippets of her work makes up for credible new content. It is so compelling that she keeps songs tucked away instead of putting them out into the world. That makes her an artist who creates art for herself first, and that is truly inspiring.
On a musical note, I was particularly moved by the poignant performances like “favorite crime” and “enough for you.” The singer rocks vintage fashion, and her aesthetic, close to my heart, is so well depicted in the film. On top of that, aware of the poor representation of women in rock, I love how Rodrigo gives top billing to an all-female band.
“There’s something so special about girls rocking out together,” she told Variety. “Empowering,” indeed, and not only to women in music but women in general. The diary accompaniment is as relatable as it is endearing.
All of the performances are fantastic, but I do have a particular fondness for the way the film came to an end. While the songs each have their fair share of anguish, “hope ur ok” closes the narrative in the most suitable manner. Not only is it a love letter imprinted with kindness and support, but it carries that “last-day-of-school” feeling tinted with healthy intonations of maturity and tenderness. Staging the song on the beach with immaculate, comforting sand, solace-giving waves and a twinkling, warming sunset that reflects the end of a journey, the performance sets itself apart.
In broad strokes, the film matches the singer’s identity rather faithfully. Just like her approach to music, the 19-year-old offers an intimate and authentic inside look at the making of the 2021 People’s Choice Awards-winning album. She capped off her stellar year by making her Grammys debut and cleaning up three awards, including Best New Artist. The whirlwind year of grand triumph keeps on giving. Until a second collection of songs is announced, fans will surely rejoice in the unique performances of “driving home 2 u.” The scenery is breathtaking, the shots are brilliant and the rearranged orchestra version of “good 4 u” is to die for.
“Olivia Rodrigo: driving home 2 u” is streaming on Disney+.