For 20 years, ever since Gilbert Gottfried made the tasteless crack that inspired it just a few weeks after 9/11, “Too soon” has been the mantra we use to jokingly suggest someone is making a joke before the time is ripe for it. But the phrase could also be applied to certain music documentaries. “Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry” caught the first chapters of Billie Eilish’s career, starting in 2015, when she recorded and posted “Ocean Eyes” on SoundCloud — and though she is still a young star (just 20), the film felt momentous, because her stardom has had such an extraordinary trajectory, and you feel, in a way, that she remade the pop-music world in her own image.
Olivia Rodrigo is a very gifted star, but it feels as if she’s living in that remade world — and “Olivia Rodrigo: driving home 2 you (a SOUR film),” which drops this week on Disney Plus, is a decently baked slice of fan service that still seems like it might be arriving a little too soon. The film, directed by Stacey Lee, is only 77 minutes long, and it doesn’t pretend to be a full-on documentary about Rodrigo’s life. We never meet her parents, or her friends (other than her music collaborators), or get a glimpse of what her daily existence was like in Salt Lake City before Rodrigo mania erupted. Rodrigo first made a splash on the music scene in January 2021 (the film opens with her screaming, her hand clapped over her mouth in disbelief, as she hears her first single, “Driver’s License,” on a car radio for the first time — it’s already the biggest song on the planet). That moment is “driving home 2 u’s” idea of pre-history.
The conceit of the documentary is that Rodrigo is taking a nostalgic solo road trip, in her vintage sky-blue Ford Bronco, from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles. It’s the same road she traveled many times as a child star, and she explains that she wrote a lot of the songs on her blockbuster album, “Sour,” during those trips. In “driving home 2 u,” she stops at the place where she composed each song to perform a new version of it. Many of the tracks have been re-arranged. “good 4 u,” for example, features Rodrigo singing against the majesty of Monument Valley with an entire string section right there in the desert (it sounds like something off “The Percy Faith Orchestra Presents Courtney Love”). The strings on that track were pre-recorded, but the other tracks have all been recorded live with extensive remixing, so what we’re watching basically feels like a connected series of lo-fi music videos.
In the years before her pop stardom, I used to watch Rodrigo with my daughters on “Bizaardvark,” the impressively quirky, at times borderline surreal Disney Channel satirical sitcom in which she and her partner, Madison Hu (who at this point stands as the show’s Andrew Ridgeley), were the definition of captivating precociousness, with a sense of irony so prankishly overdeveloped it was groundbreaking. As a pop star, Rodrigo is anything but ironic — she’s gratifyingly sincere — but the precocity remains. For someone who recorded her first album when she was a high-school senior, she’s less a teen-pop idol than a junior version of Adele on “21,” spinning out an entire song cycle — the 11 tracks of “Sour” — about one relationship that went south, that left her feeling heartbroken and betrayed, a situation she holds up to the light and sings about from every angle.
Where Billie Eilish, in the very form of her music, stakes out her own moody and original pop poetic terrain, Olivia Rodrigo is, among other things, every inch a traditional rock star — and I mean that as an extreme compliment. In “driving home 2 u,” just look at how she singes the screen in “Jealousy, Jealousy,” grabbing the mic and singing with scalding punk-grunge moves as her band, composed of five women — Heather Baker (guitars), Hayley Brownell (drums), Arianna Powell (guitars), Moa Munoz (bass guitar, acoustic guitar, keyboards), and Camila Mora (keyboards) — plays like a house on fire. There are other high points, like the darkly accusatory yet not really accusatory ballad “Favorite Crime” (“And now every time a siren sounds, I wonder if you’re around,/’Cause you know that I’d do it all again”), with its dreamy Southwestern surf guitar and stretched-out notes, which she sings in an old band shell, or “Happier,” which she performs while playing electric piano on the floor of her bedroom (the camera spinning around to catch her band members in other rooms), and which, with its lilt of resignation, is like her variation on Adele’s “Someone Like You.”
Between songs, there are snippets of Olivia working in the recording studio with her producer and co-composer, the affable Dan Nigro. Since these scenes were filmed during the final production sessions for “Sour,” in March 2021, the film doesn’t exactly give you an in-depth look at their process. But it does luck into one off-the-cuff revelation. Five days before the final track list is due, Olivia, the sort of perfectionist who’s always changing her mind, decides that she wants one more upbeat song on the album, and we see the two of them come up with “Brutal” in literally 90 seconds. Dan plucks the guitar riff out of the air — not too different from how Paul McCartney improvised the groove of “Get Back” — and Olivia starts riffing over it. A song is born, and it’s one of the album’s highlights.
Throughout the film, Rodrigo talks about her “devastation,” about the heartbreak she suffered “that keeps on giving,” about the despair and the loneliness and the self-deprecating feeling that you’re not good enough for someone. These are the all-too-real emotions of adolescence and, at times, of life. She has become a star by giving voice to them. But for someone who just turned 19, and who has as buoyant a personality as she does, that’s a lot of melancholy. “driving home 2 u” is a snapshot of a broken romantic moment, but going forward I hope that Olivia Rodrigo keeps finding ways to make music as happy as it is sad.