Lil Nas X in HBO documentary "Long Live Montero."
When Lil Nas X arrived on the music scene in 2018 with his twang-meets-trap viral sensation, “Old Town Road,” it took three months and a feature from Billy Ray Cyrus to skyrocket the single to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for 19 consecutive weeks. He achieved the feat of longest-running No. 1 single in pop music history — and then the Grammy-winning megastar started to question how he felt about his newfound fame, acceptance from his relatives and especially how the general public would react to his queerness and superstardom.
That curiosity and personal journey for the 24-year-old entertainer, born Montero Lamar Hill, is chronicled in “Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero,” an equal part concert film and video diary that’s told in three acts. The tour documentary goes on- and offstage with Lil Nas X during his headlining 60-city run across the U.S. for the Long Live Montero Tour. It is a nonlinear story that sporadically jumps to select cities while jump-cutting to weeks prior to the artist hitting the road.
“Long Live Montero” is directed by Carlos Lopez Estrada and Zac Manuel with Lil Nas X as narrator. The candid feature brings together home movies, cell phone reels, social media screenshots and interfaces, family photos, collages featuring Black queer icons, high-definition live performances, venue walk-throughs, dramatic reenactments, 3D animation and rehearsals.
“Lil Nas X is an artist who takes his visuals very seriously whether it’s videos or portraits, so we knew the movie needed to have that same approach,” said Estrada, who directed “Blindspotting” and the Oscar-nominated film “Raya and the Last Dragon.” “It needed to feel very stylish and alive, and Zac and I wanted to bring our creative influences to it.”
Directors Carlos Lopez Estrada (left) and Zac Manuel at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.
The film shows off Lil Nas X’s sense of humor. The entertainer — who’s become a recurring trending topic for making out with dancers at award shows and trolling homophobia — orders pizza for protesters who oppose his music and even jokingly points out how one of the naysayers carrying picket signs is attractive.
In other sequences, Lil Nas X is portrayed as a perfectionist who understands what his visibility and queerness means to his team and massive fanbase. Several concertgoers give testimonials throughout “Long Live Montero” about how the flamboyant Lithia Springs, Georgia, native inspires them to accept and embrace who they are. The dancers often comment on how his work ethic motivates them to give audiences a show they can remember.
“We were connecting larger themes and came together to realize in that process that Montero’s story was very similar to a lot of the people who were coming to the shows,” said Manuel, who is also the film’s cinematographer. “He was trying to find how to represent himself as honestly as possible and figure out how to live his truest identity. It was kind of profound.”
The more poignant scenes in “Long Live Montero” are the moments between a nervous Lil Nas X interacting with his immediate family. He explores his love-hate relationship with his siblings, expresses his kinship with his nephew (who he calls his “first and biggest fan”), talks love and relationships with his father, and even fuels his brother to honor his own bisexuality.
“Family is the root of all healing and a place of honesty that’s complicated and nuanced,” said Manuel, who shot the Oscar-nominated documentary “Time” in 2020. “You can be a lot of things to the outside world or public, but once you’re in your living room, all of the shields, armor and haute couture you have on quickly fade away. It can be a source of pain, but it’s always some place you have to come back to.”
In the summer of 2022, Estrada came onboard to write and conceptualize the tour’s story. The film producers asked Estrada, who is of Mexican descent, to return to co-direct and conduct interviews with fans. Manuel was contacted by Sony Music to shoot concert sequences and to follow Lil Nas X throughout the tour.
“We were connecting larger themes and came together to realize in that process that Montero’s story was very similar to a lot of the people who were coming to the shows,” said documentary director and cinematographer Zac Manuel.
Estrada liked Manuel’s footage so much, the producers thought it would be cool for the pair to partner.
“I was immersed with the show and understood it so well,” said Estrada, the youngest director to win a Latin Grammy Award for directing music videos. “Zac had been following Nas X for weeks and had a good rapport with him. We had a lot of common ground, and it really worked.”
Manuel knew intimacy would help move the storyline in “Long Live Montero.” He decided at the last minute to capture Lil Nas X having conversations from his bed, seated on his sofa, living out of suitcases and fresh out of the shower wearing a bonnet. The movie’s 95-minute run time was chiseled from 250 hours of footage shot with three cameras.
“So many of our conversations leading up to that were very on the fly,” Manuel said. “I wanted to take things a step further and say what it feels like to wake up next to Montero. I wanted that moment to feel very crisp, clear, intimate and personal.”
When Manuel captured Lil Nas X playing “Free” by Deniece Williams ahead of his Atlanta show for one of the scenes, that moment reminded the New Orleans native of his own relationship with his father, a jazz musician, who inspires him to improvise whenever he shoots.
“You really keep your eyes and ears open for moments that are surprising, feel special, or tell a personal story,” Manuel said. “It really spoke to the way he was feeling getting to his hometown the day before and being really nervous about how his family would receive him and his performance.”
Lil Nas X on his Long Live Montero tour.
“I was thinking about how we could take this piece of music that’s an explanation of what he’s feeling and bring it into the fold aesthetically,” Manuel said, of the “Free” moment. “I wanted it to feel very special for him as a sign of success and that he got over the struggle.”
Estrada and Manuel worked closely on post-production for a year with film editor Andrew Morrow. They met weekly to view footage, discuss the story arc, and figure out ways to ensure that all members of the crew felt like part of the process.
“Part of capturing a tour is you’re capturing the same show every night, so it’s thinking about how to make it different and choose various perspectives,” Manuel said. “It was rigorous, but everyone who works on his team, his family and security are so inviting. Everybody created an environment where we always felt welcomed.”
“We would do a week of editing, and I would jump back and do my thing,” said Estrada, who’s launching a screenwriter’s camp in May with his production company, Antigravity Academy. “Then we’d do another week of editing, so it was really easy to navigate.”
In September, “Long Live Montero” made its official premiere at Toronto International Film Festival. Estrada and Manuel were amazed to watch the full house at Roy Thomson Hall sing along, dance and cheer the entire time.
“TIFF was great,” Manuel said. “People were laughing the whole time, and Montero was standing up dancing. It was beautiful just to see that we made something that felt honest and joyful. The next pleasure is to be in people’s homes.”
“We always felt the movie needed to feel very cinematic, so premiering at one of the largest film festivals was a dream come true,” Estrada continued.
Now that “Long Live Montero” is making its television debut, Manuel has learned to embrace humor and joy as a departure from tackling serious topics in his past work.
“Here’s a person that’s gone through extraordinary circumstances, so I can’t be so serious all the time,” he said. “I’m hoping that this becomes a film that people will watch with their families because we landed at the best home.”
“Long Live Montero” premiered Saturday on HBO. It is now streaming on Max.