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SXSW 2021: “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” shows it’s OK to not be OK

Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil (YouTube)

This YouTube Original documentary refuses easy answers for the pop star’s struggles with addiction and mental health.

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

In the early weeks of 2020, Demi Lovato appeared at a couple of high-profile gigs—the Super Bowl and the Grammys—to deliver her first public performances since nearly dying of an overdose nearly two years earlier. These appearances were meant to be the opening shots in Lovato’s campaign to restart her career but, as was the case with everyone else, those plans were derailed with the arrival of COVID. Instead, she decided to use the time to make a confessional documentary in which she would frankly discuss both the overdose and the litany of issues that led to it and which she continues to wrestle with to this day.

To say that she’s accomplished that with Demi Lovato: Dancing with the Devil, a four-part series directed by Michael D. Ratner that had its world premiere at SXSW and which will begin airing on YouTube on March 23, would be the understatement of the year. At one point towards the beginning, she states “I’m just going to say it all, and if we don’t want to use it, we can take it out.” Based on the amount of material that is actually discussed and revealed in often agonizing detail in the film, my guess is that when it hits DVD, there probably will not be anything left for a deleted scenes section.

It’s probably a wise move that most people will be seeing this in weekly installments instead of all at once. There are so many horrors being discussed that anyone trying to watch the whole thing may need to step away from it a couple of times to process it.

Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil (YouTube)
Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil (YouTube)

It starts on a cheerful enough note, as we see footage from a 2018 documentary chronicling Lovato’s successful Tell Me You Love Me world tour. That documentary was shelved and has never seen the light of day until now because, as revealed by Lovato and an array of friends, family, and colleagues, her apparent triumphs over issues with sobriety and body image only barely masked continued struggles. These finally came to a head with her overdose, an event that was reported in the press as being exceptionally dire at the time. With all of the details now revealed, it turns out to have been even more ghastly than originally reported.

After barely surviving that ordeal—which included three strokes, a heart attack, and temporary blindness—Lovato went into rehab to finally get to work on dealing with the pressures, both personal and professional, that led her to that point. At this point, some may roll their eyes at the notion of another example of a celebrity talking about how being rich and famous drove them to chemical excess. However, in Lovato’s case, the issues that she was wrestling with (which I won’t reveal here, even though they all pretty much hit Twitter seconds after the film’s premiere) were so crushing that you can easily understand why someone would go down the path that she did.

There are so many horrors being discussed that anyone trying to watch the whole thing may need to step away from it a couple of times to process it.

Although some might question Lovato’s need to reveal this to the public, she goes about it with a bracing sense of honesty about her situation (including her belief that a policy of total abstinence on her part would be a recipe for disaster) and even a certain sense of humor at times. At the same time, certain issues from her post-OD life—such as her short-lived engagement and her decision to sign on with Scooter Braun, the controversial music manager made infamous for his public feud with Taylor Swift—are glossed over in ways that suggest that she is still adept at keeping certain aspects of her life relatively secret. 

For the most part, Demi Lovato: Dancing with the Devil is a striking portrait of a young woman who spent most of her young life going through various forms of hell to the point of near-annihilation. It’s also a story of a woman who, through a combination of determination and sheer luck, has managed to pull through with a surprising degree of optimism, albeit tempered with an equal amount of realism.

For some viewers expecting a narrative featuring an easy and unquestioned triumph over adversity dotted with bits of salacious gossip, the film may seem closer to TMI than TMZ. But others (especially those dealing with some of the same problems) may find it to be a valuable document that lets them know that they are not alone. That said, I, not to mention her legion of still-loyal fans, can only hope that a sequel will not be necessary anytime soon.

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.