I don’t know about you, but I think about Shania Twain a lot. Not in that way. It’s just the trajectory of her life and the extraordinary twists and turns in it. You couldn’t make it up. Unless, that is, you were writing a bunch of country songs with emotional heft, about loss, fate, good luck and bad.
Shania Twain: Not Just a Girl (streams Netflix from Tuesday) is about her life up to now, and boy that life has more hurt than a hatful of country songs. The 90-minute documentary is a solid and unusually candid overview of a successful artist’s career and life. There’s a certain amount of hagiography in it but there is also an awful lot of Twain being forthright and vulnerable in a way you can’t fake.
The first part of her story is one many Canadians will know, but perhaps without the benefit of Twain’s own unvarnished voice telling it. “I had a different ear for music than other kids,” she says. Her mother knew it and took little Eileen Twain to sing in local bars in Timmins, Ont., from the time she was 8, sometimes when her father was asleep. There was violence in that household and if her dad found out about the singing, “that would not end well,” she says.
There is footage of her singing at age 11. Singer Mary Bailey says, “The guitar was bigger than she was, but there was so much emotion in the voice.” Later Bailey would become Twain’s manager and help launch her career in Nashville. We see her on CBC’s The Tommy Hunter Show at age 15. “By the time I was 16, I wanted to sing rock,” she says now. ‘My parents weren’t pleased.”
At age 22, her life changed utterly. Both her parents died in a car crash and she had to look after her three siblings. She did that by performing in a Vegas-style show at the Deerhurst Resort in Huntsville, Ont. “There was no other way to get ahead than working my ass off,” is her summation.
Those years in the 1990s in Nashville, where she soon became a superstar, are well covered here. (The program is also like a textbook manual on the music industry, with a lot of input from record producers and artist managers.) She says she had little creative input into her first album, but it was her control over the video for the song What Made You Say That that changed everything. She built on the imagery from that and, of course, showed off a midriff that eventually caught the world’s attention. Mutt Lange became her producer, co-songwriter and quickly, her husband.
That period, defined by her sound and look, brought its own small miseries. She talks here about the assumptions that Mutt Lange was a Svengali who created her entire oeuvre and look out of thin air. Her record-company reps are rueful about this now, noting that Twain was very much in charge.
The climactic part of the story isn’t her stunning, worldwide success. Nope. Near the end of a massive tour, she realized she had Lyme disease and part of the impact was serious damage to her voice. “In that search to determine what was causing this lack of control with my voice and this change in my voice, I was facing a divorce,” she says. “My husband leaves me for another woman. Now I’m at a whole other low and I don’t see any point in going on with a music career.” Worse, her husband had left her for her close friend.
There is something more than poignant about this extraordinary person, the very embodiment of a swaggering, empowered woman, brought to her knees by a disease and personal heartbreak. A disruptive figure and an icon, in a short period her life collapsed. And she’s not afraid to be blunt about how hurt and terrified she was.
Not everything in her personal story is paraded here for public consumption. But one certainly gets the picture about the damage to her voice and the strength needed to deal with that. Of course, the documentary ends on the redemptive arc of a comeback of sorts with a Vegas residency and her overcoming real fears about whether she can still sing. Yet for all the upward movement toward the end, you realize that Shania Twain had a comeuppance that had nothing to do with her own actions. It’s a fact that country music is filled with overused clichés about pain, tears and betrayal. But Twain has now lived all of it. Think about that.
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