We could talk, I suppose, about all Taylor Swift’s done for the economy, friendship bracelets, seismology and Travis Kelce. But her greatest nonmusical achievement is the innocuousart she’s made of the gape. On a 50-foot screen, the various apertures of her mouth constitute a spectacle. There’s the “Who? Me?,” the “yeah I said it,” the “ouch,” the “ooooo,” the “gosh golly” and the “Sally Field wins another Oscar.” Hers is the story of “oh.”
That glee is a reason to be happy about the movie that’s been assembled from her live show — “Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour,” which was shot at SoFi Stadium outside Los Angeles, the final stop on the tour’s first leg. “Happy” because it’s recorded what a gladdening agent Swift can be on a stage and the stamina summoned to power that agency for the better part of three hours. The movie’s about 165 minutes long, and she’s as ebullient descending into the stage, for her farewell, as she is in the opening minutes magically materializing upon it. The first words she speaks to the 70,000 people hooting for her are, “Oh hi!,” as if SoFi were a shower we’d caught her singing in.
In June, when Swift landed at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., the pushing and screaming — by five high schoolers — to my immediate rear ceased at about the two-hour mark. I turned to check on the state of their ecstasy and found a pile of fatigue — the human version of that crumpled face emoji. Her glee had outlasted theirs, her zing had them zung. If nothing else, this movie’s a monument to that: Swift’s illusion of ease. She doesn’t work as physically hard or as loosely or hydraulically as her dancers. She’s not a Jackson. And she doesn’t sing as enormously or as exquisitely as a Streisand, Carey, Dion or Knowles-Carter. Nor is her show — produced as discrete segments devoted to nine of Swift’s 10 albums — the cultural gymnasium Madonna requires. Swift plays to her enhanced strengths: candied pitch, arresting stature, toothsome songwriting, winking, the very idea of play. Not far into things, right around “Cruel Summer,” she announces that we’ve encountered “the very first bridge of the evening.” There are more to come, because not since Lionel Richie has a major pop star so enjoyed the pleasure in the might of her bridgecraft.
It wasn’t until this movie that Swift’s 10-minute breakup ballad “All Too Well,” which she performs alone downstage in a glittering robe and an acoustic guitar, struck me as an achievement of genuine theater. Rapt in a movie theater, I felt the song’s heart-wrung pique in a new way. Some of that comes from watching Swift’s face register the ache, tsking recrimination. The rest comes from the song pooling outward into anthem territory. Live, it’s like watching someone woodwork “American Pie” until it resembles “Purple Rain.”
“Eras” is studded with little revelations like that. Another: the “Reputation” section of the show contains her freest, most ambitious singing and movement. That album is the first in which she approximates the mischievous, cunning, swaggy music that Beyoncé or Rihanna could make. But the kick of its first six songs is that Swift invites the dare. She spends this part of the show dressed in a serpentine unitard. She knows.
One more aha: Swift can command a stage. I’d never thought of her as someone a camera has to take in. But anytime she’s in one of those glittering bathing suits and a pair of spangled knee-high boots, the length of her demands in-taking. She can strike a formidable pose. But early, when she points to different spots in SoFi and those sections start to roar, she jokes that that kind of power is “dangerous” before kissing her biceps, except I don’t think she’s joking. She understands her power and she’s skilled at performing the accident of having so much of it, like she can’t also believe how the country would react if she, say, started going to football games and chest-bumping folks and being associated with a thing of nearby chicken fingers. Her embodiment of lightness and blitheness and insouciance constitutes a talent. Another gape: Did I do that?
The show confirmed my sense that Swift can’t be serious — doesn’t want to be — for long, lest she be labeled self-serious. She’s fine with attention but less so with her own monumentality. That discomfort strikes me as the source of the Taylor-as-Godzilla imagery of “Anti-Hero,” a dirge in jam’s clothing. In concert, Swift is as committed to skipping like a cartoon first grader along the stage as she is to sashaying and skulking around it. She’d rather be running than standing still, accruing meaning. She’d rather use her body for screwball comedy than for totemism. She knows what a holy object we’ve made and seems to be trying to undercut that. These are thoughts that could occur to you live in the moment of the show itself. But now the camera permits you to savor it.
So it’s a shame that the shots here are all over the place — the stage, the sky, too close, too far, too kinetic; only occasionally, in medium close-ups, just right. The director is Sam Wrench, and it’s unclear whether he’s making a movie or a salad. Under the circumstances, he’s done the best he probably could. For one thing, his camera operators and editors have to compete with the jumbo monitors that project what’s at the center of the stadium to its farthest reaches. Few movie screens can hold a candle to one of those — the screen at my theater wasn’t one of them, anyway. The projected image delivers a Swift who seems to be in higher resolution than the woman onstage. The breakthroughs in screen imaging have changed the concert-going experience for better and worse. They’ve democratized it, and that’s great.
You can actually experience Swift more clearly in the upper decks than in the inner circles. The concert screens literalize her cultural magnitude. But they seem like hell on good filmmaking. Unless, no one prioritized attempting to shoot around them so that Swift isn’t being upstaged by herself. Of course, that inner-circle seat is, if not priceless (there was definitely a price tag), then certainly far more valuable since, whenever Swift makes her way to the stage’s lip, we can shove a phone in her face. That introduces a modern eyesore for a concert film: other people’s movies. The “Eras” crew has clearly aimed to keep the amateur films mostly out of the shots. But they’re there, nonetheless, as intrusive in a movie as they are at the show itself.
What is it we should expect from a concert movie? Cinema or fax? “Eras” is proof that an event took place and that the event was fun. There’s more it could have been, of course. “More” just opened a few weeks ago — well, reopened in the form of “Stop Making Sense,” the 1984 concert movie Jonathan Demme made from a few Talking Heads shows, also in Los Angeles. The film predates the camera phone but not the audience. You barely hear one, and he rarely cuts away to it. The film captures one man expanding into a family and the family into a kind of small choir. Maybe Swift is too big for that movie’s living-room approach. But surely there’s a more imaginative strategy to bring her to us than point-and-shoot.
I know. “Eras” wasn’t made to be art. It was made to be an index of art that got made. It was made for posterity. Oh — and for the hundreds of people in the parking lot at every Eras show who could sort of hear Swift and had to make do with seeing only each other. The movie is for them. And they’re gonna gape their faces off.