Lil Nas X is the subject of a new HBO documentary that charts his rise amid the backdrop of his first tour. Directed by filmmakers Zac Manuel and Carlos López Estrada (Blindspotting, Raya and the Last Dragon), the doc, which initially debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, showcases the pop star in some of his most vulnerable moments that the public has seen to date.
Explaining his involvement, Manuel told Blavity’s Shadow and Act in a recent interview, “I had obviously heard, like the rest of the world, “Old Town Road” when it came out in 2019, and I remember playing it for some friends of mine on my porch when I was living in New Orleans and being like, ‘This is wacky. And I kind of love it. I don’t really know what to think about it, but I’m kind of into it. It’s infectious.’ And then I remember when his record came out, I was really interested to check out his music. I’m from the South; I’m from New Orleans, and he’s a Black artist from the South. He’s queer. He’s kind of disrupting notions of masculinity. So I was really interested in what he was doing musically and artistically. And I liked the music videos that he was putting out. I liked his artistry. I liked his kind of aesthetic, absurdity and salaciousness — all of those things I think were really fun.”
Manuel got a call from someone familiar with the then-pending project, and it immediately piqued his interest.
“I have a friend who’s a producer in the industry, and she called me and she’s like, ‘He’s going on his first tour, and we don’t really know exactly what we want to make, but we want someone to be there to capture it and do something with this moment,'” he said. “And so that was kind of my introduction to the process. Carlos came on earlier. He was actually one of the writers of the tour performance, and he kind of helped to shape it into a little bit of a narrative experience.”
Instead of focusing entirely on his rise from being unknown to massive viral fame, the documentary decides to hone in on just a slice of this: his experience during this period when preparing for and going on the tour.
“I think we always knew that we wanted it to be something personal and something very diaristic,” Manuel shared. “We didn’t want it to be this kind of retrospective or this kind of full-scope picture of his complete rise and telling that whole part of the story. We wanted to engage it and we wanted to talk about how far he had come in just a relatively short amount of time, but we did want this story to be really relegated to this period of 60 days and look at how does an artist transform over two months while embarking on their first-ever tour and doing something that they had never done before, and what are the anxieties that are kind of implicit within that? What are they excited about? How are they finding joy? How are they changing as a person? And so those were kind of the things that we were looking at when we started filming.”
The director said many lightbulb moments were sparked organically by the musician, especially early on in filming, and made them think, “How can we follow this?”
“I remember maybe second day we shot, we were riding in the car, and you see some of it in the movie, and he’s talking about a personal loss that he endured,” Manuel said. “And he goes on to say that in these moments, he’s feeling a lot of anxiety and he is feeling a lot of fear. What does he have? Is it humor? Is it courage? What are his abilities as a person to get through this moment of fear and to go out on stage every night and to be this amazing artist that he is? And then, there were a couple other moments when other things that he said became kind of sparks or lighthouses that we wanted to follow, such as talking about his family. Initially, his worries were, ‘I’m going on my first tour. Are people going to show up?’ And you’re kind of thinking, ‘Obviously, people are going to show up at Lil Nas X,’ but because he had never been the person who’s front and center doing their own show every night for different audiences around the country, that was a legitimate concern for him.”
He continued, “And so once we got through that, as the world has accepted him, I think he started to look inward and look at how his family would accept him when he went out on stage, especially in Atlanta or when he talked to them after. Would they love him in the way that they say they loved him? Would they accept him for his queerness and his identity and quirkiness and everything that he is? And so then we started to look at that as a pretty major part of the story, and we were blessed to be able to be brought into those relationships and into that process of engaging with family and trying to find some comfort and trying to find some acceptance.”
Also, since Lil Nas X is a public figure who engages with his fans and non-fans alike in a way deemed (for better or worse) troll-like and very unserious, it is inherently interesting to see a different perspective of him in his personal project.
“I think a lot of the first days of shooting was just trying to break down the walls, which I mean, honestly, it’s not so much I got to hammer down the wall to get the story, but it’s really about sharing,” Manuel noted. “I think if you go into a space and as a filmmaker, you’re willing to give equal parts of yourself, then you can request that from who you’re working with. I think a lot of it was just really getting to know each other as people and kind of putting the ideas of stardom aside for a second to say, ‘This is who I am. I really am super interested legitimately to get to know you, not just as an artist or as a superstar, but as a young person who’s in a pretty extraordinary position of influence. How does that affect you as a person and how can we look beyond all the noise that’s happening around you to just talk about what you’re feeling?’ I’m grateful that he was really down to be vulnerable and down to engage within that process.”
The filmmaker also noted how important humor is not only to the persona of Lil Nas X but to his identity overall.
“I think humor for him is almost a weapon that he can use against haters and people who are just opposed to his identity on a very spiritual level,” he remarked. “And I think it’s important for him to have that. But I also think that what we were able to engage with and kind of dive into is another part of his identity that maybe people don’t get to see as often, but I think is just as present in his day-to-day. I mean, he’s such a sweet person, such a genuine person and a really earnest person. And I think all of those things come out. So it wasn’t really difficult to get to know him in that way. It was super comfortable.”
Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero is now streaming on Max.