SXSW 2021: ‘Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil’ is a Soul Laid Bare

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Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil
Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil and this article discuss eating disorders, addiction, and suicide

I don’t know how to write about Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil. It’s a documentary film, but it’s also someone’s soul laid bare for everyone to see. Not only that, I see myself in it. How do I rate that? So I won’t. Instead, I’m going to talk about the power this film gives Lovato, and how it’s an act of agency that could have only been exercised while on the “other side.”

In 2018, Demi Lovato was filming a documentary about her US tour, but when she was hospitalized for an overdose. It was shelved. In Spring of 2020, Lovato finally felt that she could revisit it. Only, Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil isn’t about her music, her rise to stardom, or the shows she performed. Instead, it’s about her. It’s about her mistakes, her trauma, and more importantly, her growth and her survival. It’s her story, and while her friends and family are speaking from their experiences with her, it’s all about her experiences.

Lovato and the others in the film make note of this shift in perspective, and most importantly, the differences between the 2018 documentary and the final 2021 product. To them, the recording didn’t feel right because no one was telling the truth. To put it in Lovato’s words, she was “suppressing” herself.

Over the course of Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil we see Lovato’s life on display but more importantly, we receive a look into what recovery looks like and how relapses happen, even when those around you try to control your environment to prevent them. As she crafted her image during sobriety and restricted everything about her life, down to what people around her ate, it all eroded what little agency Lovato had left.

And, it’s one of the few times on-screen I’ve seen eating disorders talked about not as wanting to be beautiful but as wanting to have control. The same with addiction. It’s a small thing that those who haven’t experienced would dismiss. But for me, it was a recognition that the dependency on methods of self-harm like purging is about trying to grasp ahold of your own life. That fact is something that many people miss when they try to help the ones they love recover. They focus on the visuals—on the outside—instead of understanding the trauma and drive that these disorders stem from.

Lovato also describes her past sexual trauma both on the night of her overdose and as a teen. It’s a striking section of the film that shakes you. It shows her vulnerability but it also shows the strength that she’s found in that openness. I say strength because yes, she’s standing, but at the same time, I don’t say strength as how we typically hear it. It isn’t about the strength she is showing to others, but rather, her voice is strong when she tells her story because she’s finally in control of her story. But more importantly, the strength she shows comes with a emotional vulnerability as well.

While it is clear that Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil was a personal endeavor made to unpack her trauma from assault, addiction, and her eating disorder, I can say that it helped me interrogate my own. That said, Lovato explains in the film that her openness about her struggles led her to become an advocate, even on days she didn’t want to be. It made her people’s icon, inspiration, and light. And how can you handle your own darkness when you’re supposed to be everyone else’s savior?

Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil

The toll that publicly handling your struggles takes and the push to perfect exacerbate your disorders and for Demi it was traumatizing. That’s apparent in both Lovato’s voice and face as she maps out her trauma. So when I say that this film impacted me, it’s not that I hold Lovato responsible for that, but more-so the vulnerability she showed in her words. Because this story is from and for her. It plays like a diary entry, exploring everything she’s tried to suppress and escape. Now though, this documentary is in her words and really isn’t made for me or the audience, it’s for herself.

Finally, Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil ends powerfully with a nuanced discussion on addiction, rehabilitation, and why the world of getting sober isn’t black and white for everyone. Instead, recovery is a personal journey and it’s up to the person who is recovering to find their path. Addiction and eating disorders don’t leave you. And when others try to control your recovery, sometimes, it makes it worst. To see an open discussion on surviving and getting better as not being a “mission completed” but a continuous project is important. Additionally, the call for people to speak with their doctors and to be open to find their own paths forward is an important one. What works for Lovato will not work for everyone else, recovery isn’t a one-size solution, but something to be discussed and worked on with professionals.

It’s then that the documentary begins to show Lovato’s joy, using her boisterous laugh to cut through silence. Showing her celebrating her birthday, and showing her thriving. Her fear is still there, but it isn’t stopping her from living, because as she states, she wants to live.

Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil can be a triggering experience, but it’s her truth, her life, and her soul laid bare for all to see. Only now, she’s revealing it all, not a tabloid.

Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil was screened at SXSW Film Festival 2021 and will premiere on YouTube March 23, 2021.