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SXSW 2021: Charli XCX’s “Alone Together” shows the giddy link between artist and fan

Alone Together: Charli XCX (SXSW)

Bradley Bell and Pablo Jones-Soler assemble a freewheeling look at the artistic process from soup to nuts.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2021 SXSW Film Festival.)

A good number of the films on display at this year’s SXSW festival are works that are inextricably tied to the COVID-19 pandemic, either by using at as a part of the plot or because of the limitations to the production process instilled by quarantine procedures. Alone Together, which had its world premiere at the festival, takes those approaches one step further by serving as a documentary watching an artist—in this case, avant-pop queen Charli XCX—as she goes about her work under the new restrictions brought on by the current reality. 

The result is a brief but wholly fascinating look at her unique creative process and how not even a global pandemic cannot stifle it entirely.

Although Taylor Swift received all sorts of attention for writing and recording not one but two highly acclaimed albums—the Grammy-winning Folklore and the follow-up Evermore—she was not the first major artist to pull off the accomplishment of creating an album in quarantine. Several months earlier, scuttled and stuck at her Los Angeles home after California announced its stay-at-home order, Charli announced to her vast fanbase online that she intended to write and record a brand-new album, to be titled How I’m Doing Now, from her own home. 

While Swift recorded her albums in enough secrecy that most people didn’t know they were coming out until a day or two before they were released, Charli not only announced that hers would be complete and released in five weeks’ time, but that she would let her fans observe the entire process via livestreams and Instagram posts.

If fellow SXSW entry Tom Petty: Somewhere You Feel Free told the story of the recording of an album in a more wistful and elegiac manner, Alone Together comes across more like a series of off-the-cuff selfies. Co-directors Bradley Bell and Pablo Jones-Soler offer up a smorgasbord of raw footage of Charli as she tries to take the months-long process that goes into making the typical major-label album and do it in just a few weeks in her house. 

For anyone interested in the artistic process at work, this stuff is undeniably fascinating. It may even prove inspirational to aspiring music makers out there who may see what she accomplishes with commercial-grade equipment and decide to see what they can do on their own.

For anyone interested in the artistic process at work, this stuff is undeniably fascinating.

At the same time, Alone Together also serves as a document of two of the most significant personal relationships in Charli XCX’s life and how they survived amidst the pandemic. The first is with Huck Kwong, her boyfriend of seven years, who has come from New York to quarantine with her — even though the longest the two have ever spent together at one shot has been about two weeks. We keep expecting some kind of implosion, but he proves to be loving and supportive throughout. Still, the look on his face when she explains her idea for the album’s first video — the two of them making out in front of the cameras while wearing green-screen suits to allow fans to superimpose other footage onto their bodies—is undeniably priceless. 

The other relationship is with her loyal fanbase, many of whom are members of the LGBTQ+ community and are especially isolated as a result of the quarantine. We see several instances of queer fans testifying their adoration of her as someone who truly gets them. At no point do the fans ever come across as self-serving; her enthusiasm for them is just as strong as theirs is for her. When she presents her new music to them, it’s a bigger thrill to her than any concert tour could possibly provide.

Most rock-oriented documentaries are works that are essentially almost entirely at the fan bases of the acts being profiled. Alone Together, on the other hand, is such an intriguing look at the creation of state-of-the-art pop bliss (How I’m Feeling Now would receive rave reviews and be lauded as one of the best of the year). And in Charli XCX, it has such a compelling presence at its center that even those unfamiliar with her work may get a genuine kick out of it as well. 

And yet, for all the entertaining moments on display, the highest point may be what Charli says a few days after the release of How I’m Feeling Now: “I feel bored.” We should be so lucky.

Peter Sobczynski

Peter Sobczynski is a Chicago-based filmcritic whose work can be seen at RogerEbert.com, EFilmcritic.com and, well, here. He is also on the board for the Chicago Critics Film Festival and the Chicago Film Critics Association. Yes, he once gave four stars to “Valerian” and he would do it again.