There’s a sense throughout Selena Gomez: My Mind & Me, a new documentary on Apple TV+, of a shadow self, the ghosts of different films that could’ve been. The bulk of the film’s first 15 minutes takes place in 2016, as a strikingly younger Gomez – she was 23 then, 30 now – prepares for the world tour in support of her 2015 album Revival, the project meant to refashion her image from Disney star to single adult sexual being.
The footage has all the hallmarks of a tour documentary – a relaxed, more profane version of Gomez in costume fittings and tour rehearsals; a moment in which she cracks from the pressure, panicking through tears to friends and crew that nothing is good enough; a montage of cities and stages and poses and cheers and crying, overwhelmed fans. And then, cut. The Revival tour was cancelled after 55 performances, as Gomez entered a psychiatric facility. Talking heads who don’t appear for the rest of the film attest to the absolute hell Gomez was in.
And then, cut – to 2019, as Gomez recuperates from a blistering three years of tumult alluded to but not explored: a 2017 kidney transplant due to complications from the auto-immune disease lupus, a breathlessly covered reconciliation and final breakup with Justin Bieber, reconciliation with her family post-psychosis, another stay in a treatment facility with the diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Pop star documentaries are almost always more interesting for what they leave out rather than include, but My Mind & Me, directed by Alek Keshishian – whose 1991 Madonna film Truth or Dare set the mold and remains the gold standard for the genre – is an especially intriguing amalgamation of choices. There’s no mention of her well-received return to TV on the popular Hulu series Only Murders in the Building, of her similarly endearing cooking show Selena + Chef, or her and her mother’s role in producing the controversial series 13 Reasons Why; there’s only a brief reference to 2021’s Revelación, her first Spanish-language album.
Instead, My Mind & Me is a compelling, if at times frustrating, assemblage of tangents, elisions and redirections collected over six years, during which time Gomez’s personal life and understanding of her brain changed considerably. Though Gomez promises, in the film’s opening frames, to “only tell you my darkest secrets”, the film feels less like an act of exorcism, propaganda or observation – a la Demi Lovato’s Dancing with the Devil, Taylor Swift’s Miss Americana and Billie Eilish’s The World’s A Little Blurry – than as a blinkered, sincere, transparently incomplete archive of hard-won growth.
That is not a bad thing, as Gomez remains a pre-eminently sympathetic and winning figure. Perhaps because much of her career has been defined less by her artistry than her ability to be appealing and empathic across formats, Gomez, arguably more than any of her peers, is the pop star with the most visible Sliding Door self – a normal girl, the kind who gets drive-thru burgers, as she does with her cousin Priscilla in the film’s middle section in her home town of Grand Prairie, Texas. Of her millennial pop star cohort, Gomez has publicly chafed the most at the expectation to be seen, and the celebrity imperative to want to perform.
Mind & Me, then, is ambivalently promotional – a pop star documentary primarily concerned with the utility of fame even as, for the film’s second half, she’s marketing her 2020 comeback album Rare. Why continue if, as she says in the film’s extremely corny interludes rendering her diary entries on screen over blurred black-and-white footage of Gomez, the success “has killed me”.
The answer, so much as the film supplies one and delivered in Gomez’s reliable earnestness, is to connect with people. My Mind & Me captures her terror and ultimate relief in coming forward with her bipolar diagnosis and documents her genuinely remarkable efforts to destigmatize mental illness. It’s more effective when Keshishian, a verité film-maker, catches Gomez telling it rather than following her to situations showing it – her former middle school, her childhood home, an old neighbor friend’s house. The disconnect feels most acute in a middle chapter in Kenya, where Gomez visits a school she helped support through the now controversial We Charity. Gomez cares, clearly; the images – a focal point of the film – are still cringe.
Keshishian, as in Truth or Dare, works in moments that complicate Gomez’s angelic image: being short with a too-glib interviewer, refusing to listen to a friend, reacting poorly to genuine concern. My Mind & Me is strongest, and bravest, in moments like this, illustrating Gomez’s humanity through universal capacities we don’t want recorded. Taylor Swift’s stage-managed doc would never. At one point, her friend Raquelle notes that most people wouldn’t know how “complex” Gomez is beneath the kindness. At its best, My Mind & Me glimpses that thorny complexity, from a star who makes the best case of any to both share and hide it.
Selena Gomez: My Mind & Me is at select cinemas and on Apple TV+ on 4 November