On the eve of heading up to Canada this week to attend the Toronto Film Festival, where his documentary “Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero” has its world debut Saturday night, pop superstar Lil Nas X was playing it nonchalant about stepping outside the music realm a bit to be the center of a splashy event in the movie world. “Not really,” he answers, when asked whether it means anything special to him to have a gala premiere at North America’s biggest film event. “I mean, I’m excited to go there and to see what people think, and also, I’ve never been to a film festival, so maybe I’ll meet people and and build some future relationships. That can be cool.”
His real sense of excitability is reserved for the impact he thinks the film might have out in the world, and how those who identify with him might relate to it. He grows more passionate when the question arises about whether the doc might serve to elevate issues of representation. “I truly hope so,” Nas says. “I know in my lifetime, while I’m here, I’m going to do my best to make the ceiling unreachable to where we can go as Black queer people. And I mean unreachable as, like, it can go above and beyond. I feel like we live in a generation where Black queer people really control culture, and they’re helping really take the world to the next level. And I think that’s going to have an effect on our youth watching us. So… yeah, basically!”
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Variety spoke with Nas and the film’s two co-directors, Carlos López Estrada and Zac Manuel, about how the film developed from an open-ended desire on the part of the star’s record company to just make sure Nas’ first tour was documented to something that had more personal or cultural resonance, even if no one involved had much initial idea what shape that might take.
On its most basic level, “Long Live Montero” captures a fairly anomalous moment in pop music, when someone has become such an overnight sensation, he has joined the ranks of top music superstars before he’s ever done his first tour. “Scared” is a word Nas uses in the film to describe his state of mind as he looks at putting together a highly choreographed and costumed outing in just a month’s time, although he doesn’t look particularly nervous. And maybe he really doesn’t have that much reason to be afraid of failure, as the Long Live Montero tour hits the road in September of 2022 for an eight-month run. Here is a guy who followed up one of the quantifiably biggest hits in the annals of popular music, “Old Town Road,” by coming out as gay… and had that experience go better than almost anyone could have imagined, in terms of wide acceptance and moving needles.
But if the film captures Lil Nas X taking a massive victory lap, on a tour that goes off without any real hitches, there are still some slight speed bumps in which the star has things to wrestle with along the way, like whether he yet feels as comfortable being himself around his family, in his newly emboldened identity, as he does in front of thousands of concertgoers or millions of TV viewers.
“I think there are a lot of different layers to the film, which is surprising maybe for a music documentary,” says co-director Manuel. “I think what was really important was that Montero himself was so transparent in his identity and also his journey toward being the fullest version of his identity that he really wanted to be. And I think sharing that journey with us and going on that journey with his family ended up really becoming the heart of the film. He is a really intelligent and thoughtful person, and he’s able to reflect on his place as an artist in the international pop music world. But he’s also able to put himself in perspective as a part of a continuum of other Black queer artists and performers who came before him. I think his reflections on those things became the spine and the heart of the film — and it became really important to the narrative, and also to how we understand him as more than just an artist, but understand him as a person.”
Surely the instigators of the film (which include Columbia Records and Sony Music as producing entities and Columbia label chief Ron Perry among the executive producers) had instincts, or hopes, that the doc would end up being as intimate as it ultimately got. But at the outset, the immediate mission was just to make sure Nas’ first time(s) stepping out onto a stage at length, beyond the realm of VMAs and Grammy one-offs, did not go undocumented.
Estrada and Manuel were brought on to sort of tag-team as directors: Manuel staying glued to Nas behind the scenes, and Estrada getting a more macro picture of the tour. The co-directors’ known strengths are evident from their filmographies: Manuel is known for establishing relationships with subjects in unsplashy, Sundance-award-winning documentary work, while Estrada has directed more commercially oriented feature films like “Blindspotting” and “Raya and the Last Dragon,” as well as videos for artists from Billie Eilish to Father John Misty to Katy Perry.
“It definitely developed as it went,” says Estrada. “We were aware this was not only his first tour, but the first time, other than awards show performances, he’s gotten to play his music for his fans only. He blew up during the lockdown, so it was the artist who was world-renowned getting the first chance to interface with his audience. Zac was brought on to be with him 24/7 as his tour was getting put together. I was brought on to figure out a way to document the show and the fan experience in the most unique way, and then Zac and I met and started working together. But with the label, and Nas, I don’t think anyone really knew what shape it was going to be or how it was going to work. It really kept evolving until we were in the editing room and we were like, ‘OK, this feels like it has a shape and it feels like it has a voice.'”
“They had a cool vibe” is what Nas himself has to say about the movie’s twin helmers. “It was like, ‘Let’s see what happens, where it goes.’ We got so much content and so many different moments, I was interested to see how they were gonna cut it down, but it came out like really beautiful. And it really shows a moment of uncertainty in my life that I was glad was documented. … I feel like stepping into anything new is always gonna be uncomfortable, so it was definitely scary, and there were also a lot of insecurities, and fighting against those, as far as how I feel about performing well and how I felt at that time. But I got through it and now I actually love performing.”
Nas elaborates: “I feel like that was a time in my life where I was very excited to move on to the next thing and get to the next me, and didn’t realize that I was already there. After my rise to fame or whatnot, in the ‘Old Town Road’ era, I started to define my life by however many times my name is in the news, at whatever rate, to know when my life is great. And I never took seriously the phrase to ‘stop, look around, smell the roses, and you’re gonna miss these days’ and things like that, until I was actually there. So I got a new outlook on life to where I want to make sure that not only am I striving to reach my goals, but also having fun while doing so. And that’s something I got from the tour.”
Nas — real name: Montero Lamar Hill — is seen interacting with extended family quite a bit in behind-the-scenes segments scattered throughout the film.
“That actually wasn’t my idea,” he acknowledges. “I’m glad they’re in it, though. I’m glad I’m able to see their p.o.v. while I’m not standing right in front of them.”
Nas experiences something in the documentary that a lot of other young men don’t get to enjoy so soon after coming out as gay: the acceptance of that among his kin. At least one family member does admit, though, jokingly or otherwise, that his being rich and famous did smooth the way for that being so easily acceptable. Meanwhile, Nas has moments in which he openly wonders whether being out might affect the relationships he has with some family members, or whether it will affect how his young nephew, who has idolized him all his life, sees him going forward. While there’s no melodrama here, many viewers will relate with the hesitations that the otherwise extraordinarily bold Nas has about looking or seeming at all flamboyant around his family, including a tentative moment when he’s going to wear a skirt in front of his immediate family.
Asked about his favorite scene in the film, Nas does pick one of the family scenes. “Do I have any favorite moments? I definitely think my favorite scene was the skating rink part, when (the Deniece Williams’) ‘Free’ song was playing. It’s just something about that day where I feel like everything turned around in my life. So it’s my favorite for sure.”
Before hitting the ice with his family, Nas is seen spending some time intently focusing on picking out the perfect soundtrack for that outing… and gleefully grooving along to the Deniece Williams tune, her breakout, which hit No. 2 on the soul chart in 1976. Does he hope its prominent inclusion in the film might spur a Niecy/”Free” revival? “God, I hope so!” he enthuses.
Other viewers might have their own favorite scenes in the film — whether they’re the ones where he’s grappling with issues of identity or just being the playful Lil Nas X fans have to come to expect, like a moment in a visit to a butterfly garden where the insects decline to come down out of the trees, and Nas twerks to try to draw them out.
Says Manuel, “There’s a scene early on where we enter his house, and he’s like, ‘You know, no one’s ever come into my house before.; Literally, that was the first time we went to his house, and you’re seeing and experiencing it two, three minutes after we walked in the door. He was really open, and I don’t know if that has as much to do with me as to do with him in just allowing us into his space. There was no coaching of, like, ‘OK we need to talk about this.’ I do a lot of documentary work, and I work with a lot of people who are going through a lot of really difficult issues in their lives, so my practice is really based on asking for permission or asking for consent at all times. So we developed a relationship where it was never a surprise as to what we would talk about or do. And I think maybe that allowed him a certain degree of comfort and a certain degree of authority to say yes or no to certain things, but there was never a time when he said, ‘No, I don’t want to do this,’ or ‘No, I don’t want to talk about that.’ I think we were really blessed to work with somebody who was really ready to open up.”
The artist isn’t into providing any spoilers for his second album, at present. In one scene in the documentary, he does express some hopes or plans for the follow-up to 2021’s “Montero” album, suggesting it will be less angst-y and more escapist, in a positive way. Asked whether he still feels that way, this months after filming wrapped up, and presumably with his head even more oriented toward coming up with new material, mum is the word. “Let’s just see when it comes out” is all he’ll say.
It was Estrada’s job as co-director to capture the fan experience in the film, with interviews with concertgoers that make it clear they see him as a role model. “For me, the most meaningful moments that I had working on the movie were sitting with the fans and having them talk about his music and the influence of j his persona. He’s allowed or encouraged a lot of them to feel more comfortable and more accepting about every aspect of themselves — things that maybe we thought were complicated or bad or sad — and just like really embrace them and celebrate them. And I feel like that’s just a strong, beautiful-feeling message. I would love if more people become exposed to his music and his message through the film. I don’t know that there’s a lot of people at his height of fame or his influence who are being so thoughtful and responsible about what they leave behind and the messages that they share.”
That’s a little too high-minded for Nas, though, as far as what he sees happening here, at least when it’s put in any kind of heroic terms. “I’m still like, I don’t know, anti- me being a role model,” he explains.
He does have that moment in the film where he talks about the lineage of Black LGBTQ+ artists that preceded him, and enthuses over Little Richard in particular, even as the filmmakers put up images of some of the other figures from art and literature who preceded even him, out at the time or not. And Nas is happy in this interview to remark on how he hopes the documentary represents him “do(ing) my best to make the ceiling unreachable to where we can go as Black queer people.”
But when it’s in the context of where the doc might sit in or have an impact on his career, Nas says: “You know, this is one of the only times in my life where I am releasing something and I have absolutely zero expectations for it. I’m just like, whatever happens, happens. But, you know, I hope everybody loves it. I hope everybody fucks with it.”
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