Pop singer Olivia Rodrigo’s new film, driving home 2 u: a SOUR film (directed by Stacey Lee), can’t be added to the ever-growing canon of celebrity documentaries. Instead, despite featuring clips from recording sessions peripherally, it aligns with the recent boom of celebrity concert films, such as Arianna Grande’s excuse me, i love you (2020) Taylor Swift’s Reputation Stadium Tour (2018), and Billie Eilish’s Happier Than Ever: A Love Letter to Los Angeles (2021). Although prominent before the pandemic, COVID-19 made these films a necessary companion to all releases while live shows were suspended indefinitely, and coronavirus concerns lingered as shows resumed.
Rodrigo explained that driving home 2 u’s focus on live performances provides an opportunity for fans to experience SOUR, her debut album, performed live if they can’t attend her upcoming tour. However, she has already given fans this type of content in the form of SOUR Prom, a recording of live performances amidst a sad-prom backdrop. “since i never got to go to prom, I wanted to throw a little prom party with my fav ppl,” she said via Twitter at the film’s announcement. Rodrigo, however, might not have attended a prom either way, unless that prom was part of Tim Federle’s 2019 television show, High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, Disney’s reboot of Kenny Ortega’s 2006 film, High School Musical in which she stars. However, driving home 2 u’s live performances serve a new purpose that differentiates them from SOUR Prom.
Mirroring the start of her career, which launched into the stratosphere with the release of Rodrigo’s debut single “drivers license” in January of 2021, driving home 2 u doesn’t spend much time with explanations. Before “drivers license”, Rodrigo had a devoted following for her role in High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, for which she composed original songs. There, she caught the eye of producer Dan Nigro (Lewis Capaldi, Carly Rae Jepsen) and later, Interscope/Geffen Records. driving home 2 u focuses on the creation and performance of this music instead of Rodrigo’s career journey. Clips of Rodrigo and Nigro’s recording sessions punctuate the live performances. For example, Rodrigo contemplates adding “one more upbeat song” to the almost-finished record just days before its due date. The result: “Brutal”, an album-opener that could only have been conceived after “drivers license” fame, for its marriage of celebrity struggles with teen angst.
In the music video for “Brutal”, (separate from the film) Rodrigo wears Brittany Spear’s 2003 American Music Awards Dress. Pairing it with a blonde wig, Rodrigo, sings the lyrics, “All I did was try my best/is this the kind of thanks I get?” as comments fill up the bottom of the screen, framed as an Instagram Live. Rodrigo’s imitation of Spears in the context of social media insists that the level of scrutiny female pop stars endure has remained consistent over the past decade, merely taking on new forms.
Rodrigo has been at the center of media speculation since the release of “drivers license”. Fans attribute the inspiration for this song to Rodrigo’s HSM co-star Joshua Basset and Disney peer Sabrina Carpender, the song’s alleged “blonde girl” who was linked to Basset after his split from Rodrigo. Shortly after “drivers license”. Carpenter, released “Skin” and Basset released “Lie Lie Lie”. These responses to “license” added to the media maelstrom that surrounded Rodrigo. However, by refusing to document this fallout, driving home 2 u makes a point about the celebrity gossip industrial complex.
Taylor Swift, one of Rodrigo’s influences, has commented on the media obsession with her romantic life overshadowing her craft. She told Vogue, “People would act like [songwriting] was a weapon I was using…writing songs is an art and a craft and not an easy thing to do.” Rodrigo entered directly into the media landscape Swift helped shape as an autobiographical singer-songwriter. Even after Rodrigo emerged as an ingénu, Swift reignited speculation about her relationship with Jake Gyllenhaal with the release of Red (Taylor’s Version) in November 2021. Rodrigo watched the media’s reaction to Swift’s relationships and learned how to navigate them.
In driving home 2 u, Rodrigo reveals, “And I had to see him every day which was devastating,” speaking about the break-up that inspired SOUR. Fans will piece together this reference to the unpleasantry of seeing a co-star onset after the demise of a relationship. Similar to Swift, Rodrigo lets fans reach conclusions about her relationships on their own. However, she can do so while benefiting from a climate Swift created in which the craft of female songwriters is respected despite that their songs may have high-profile subjects. This change gives driving home 2 u the latitude to peripherally address the inspiration of Rodrigo’s work while continuing its narrative in a different direction.
The film does justify its own existence within the current cultural context. Between songs, Rodrigo chats with friend Jacob Collier, a Grammy-winning singer-songwriter. When he hands “driver’s license” an obligatory compliment, their discussion feels like a staged “Actors on Actors” Variety discussion instead of a chat between friends. But it makes no strain to emulate authenticity. Rodrigo and Collier don’t need to showcase their supposed friendship to support the narrative of the film. Rodrigo bases her persona on the idea that celebrity culture asks young stars to reveal too much of their personal lives, aside from what they may choose to share in their work. Rodrigo participates in a cultural shift by not directly feeding this machinery. In a September 2019 interview, Taylor Swift told Rolling Stone, “I used to be like a golden retriever…wagging my tail. ‘What do you want to know?’ Now, I guess, I have to be a little bit more like a fox.” That’s a shift that has impacted the way the newest generation of stars defines their relationship with the public.
The brief discussion between Rodrigo and Collier occurs on the hood of a 1950s pickup truck in the middle of the Utah desert. The film’s sonic journey throughout the album’s eleven tracks takes place as Rodrigo makes a physical journey she has made many times: driving from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles. In real life, Rodrigo made this trip traveling between her home in California and Salt Lake City, where she filmed HSMTMTS. During these drives, she wrote many of SOUR’s songs, which carve out their own place in the canon of young adult romance. Rodrigo described her hometown of Temecula, California, as “the most suburban town ever.” driving home 2 u begins its journey in the suburbs of Salt Lake, one of the many levels of suburbia in Rodrigo’s persona.
Rodrigo stars in a mockumentary-style reboot of High School Musical that takes place at the school where it was filmed and follows the school’s drama club as they stage their own production. Here, Disney successfully capitalized on one of its most recognizable franchises by parodying its oversaturation. (Hence the title: High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.) Rodrigo’s genesis as a star may have occurred in a teen show, but, somewhat coincidentally, her music traffics in the suburban teen romance subgenre. “driver’s license” narrates a drive past an ex’s house: “I was driving through the suburbs, and pictured I was driving home to you.” The namesake lyrics of the film illuminate its purpose: the staged journey of Rodrigo’s Salt Lake-to-LA commute serves as a catharsis for the heartbreak that inspired the album. Throughout the film, California’s Red Rock National Park, Utah’s desert, and, in the final scene, the Pacific ocean, are the backdrop for this emotional journey.
The trek begins with an anticipated move from the suburbs. Rodrigo performs the first musical number of the film, “happier”, an angsty, piano-driven track in which she tells her former lover to “Think of me fondly when your hands are on her”. She sings while lying on the bedroom floor of a sparsely furnished house. Moving boxes and odd pieces of furniture are set against the wall. The house’s decor continues the film’s retro motif, bolstered by grainy filters and roadside diner stops. This aesthetic choice cashes in on the Gen-Z obsession with aughts nostalgia that emerged during the pandemic. Rodrigo positions herself as a torchbearer for the movement, with punk songs reminiscent of Avril Lavigne. However, the moving boxes in the opening scene suggest she’s looking toward the future.
Indeed, the boxes symbolize the quick succession of changes that occurred in Rodrigo’s life over the past year: graduating high school, moving out, and becoming a worldwide sensation nearly overnight. When she arrives in California at the film’s conclusion, Rodrigo and her band play the album’s final track “hope ur ok”: “Address the letters/ to the holes in my butterfly wings”, she sings. Rodrigo incorporates heartbreak and conflict into her image. The beauty is in overcoming it. At the end of the film, when she jumps into the ocean alongside her bandmates, it becomes clear that Rodrigo has left behind the emotional baggage boxed up in that suburban house.
Rodrigo’s contemplation of growing up is unique in a pop culture climate that often focuses on “be[ing] young forever”. Rodrigo echoes Katy Perry’s 2010 smash Teenage Dream, asking “Where’s my fuckin’ teenage dream?” on “Brutal”. Rodrigo builds on the last decade of pop, which slowly transitioned away from the glee of Teenage Dream, mirroring Lorde’s mysticism and Billie Eilish’s cynicism. Rodrigo’s apparent lack of a teenage dream symbolizes America’s own disillusionment, evoked by the film’s journey through empty diners and run-down motels.
Rodrigo, of Philipino-American descent, told V Magazine in an August 2021 interview, “I sometimes get DMs from little girls being like, ‘I’ve never seen someone who looked like me in your position.’” However, despite the representation she has brought to the Asian-American community, Rodrigo faced backlash for a comment she made about race: “It was always like ‘Pop star.’ That’s a white girl,” she said. Although she meant to comment on the prevalence of Western beauty standards, many accused Rodrigo of cultural erasure as her remark ignores the influence of women of color such as Beyoncé and Rihanna. This misstep mirrored Lana Del Rey’s infamous Instagram rant in 2020, another pop star whose work Rodrigo echoes.
Del Rey’s persona reverts to American fantasies when confronted with modern disillusionment and cynicism. However, Del Rey espoused this cynicism in a tone-deaf “Question for the Culture”, where she bemoaned that Beyoncé, Arianna Grande, Camila Cabello, and others have “had number ones about being sexy” while Del Rey has been criticized for “glamourizing abuse”. Here, Del Rey positions her reckoning with her whiteness as an inherent obstacle instead of something that has provided her with the ability to navigate toxic relationships from a delicate point of view.
Similarly, by casting pop stars as white, Rodrigo made her entry into the pop stratosphere seem more compelling by painting it as singular when, in reality, women of color have been dismantling the idea of a “white pop star” for years. In driving home 2 u, Rodrigo hones Del Rey’s legacy as she performs several songs in roadside diners and, between scenes, the camera flashes through a montage of open roads, motels, and broken-down cars. Although this imagery has given both pop stars blind spots, they have used it to steer American culture in a new direction.
Rodrigo, a soon-to-be Disney alum, has taken a different path than many of her predecessors. She avoided the Disney-owned record label, Hollywood Records, which controlled the public image of many former Disney Channel stars long after they began their careers as solo artists. Rodrigo has also criticized the “star-maker machinery” that enabled her rise, which previous Disney alumni have only recently begun to do. (“People [were] out here gettin’ fired for chocolate in the backseat,” Demi Lovato revealed on her most recent album.) “I don’t want to be the biggest pop star that ever lived,” Rodrigo told The Guardian in May 2021. “I want to be a songwriter.”
It makes sense, then, that driving home 2 u would avoid the current celebrity documentary trope of exploiting the turmoil of its subject for the purpose of entertainment. Instead, Rodrigo is in control of the repurposing of her pain through its transformation into songs, which the film offers up as parables of love, loss, self-exploration, and growing up. It’s safe to say Rodrigo is sitting in the driver’s seat of her career.