As far as the music documentary is an extension of a brand experience, Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero provides an illuminating look behind the scenes, demystifying the artist while also existing within the spirit of their on-screen persona. A boundary breaker, Lil Nas X (birth name Montero Lamar Hill) embodies a seductive enigma, allowing his co-directors Carlos López Estrada and Zac Manuel to interview him in bed at one point. The artist rose to fame with his country rap single “Old Town Road” before coming out on Twitter/X in what some viewed as a betrayal. Estrada and Manuel thankfully save us from Rudy Giuliani’s podcast commentary after his unapologetically queer album Montero drops with its first single “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name).”
Lil Nas X’s identity has always been a lightning rod and the film’s TIFF premiere was allegedly delayed due to a bomb threat against Roy Thompson Hall and the artist. This threat was quickly ruled as not credible. When dealing with the haters, Lil Nas X has a unique approach: he sends those protesting his shows pizza while his supporters shout them down. Part concert movie, part behind-the-scenes confessional and biography, Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero weaves together a seductive and fun tapestry through social media, home video, and kinetic concert footage from his Long Live Montero Tour, embracing the warmth, humor, and self-doubt of an artist that dropped out of college to pursue a music career. Told with a kind of gritty polish, co-directors Estrada and Manuel have intimate access throughout.
Starting with the tour’s opening night at the Fox Theater in Detroit and working both backward and forwards to chronicle Lil Nas X’s upbringing from a conservative-yet-supportive family, the directors frame the young artist in the tradition of Little Richard and similar creatives that had the audacity to bring their private persona on stage. The film spends time with the artist’s ardent, multi-generational fanbase that has come to appreciate his persona both on and off stage.
An easy criticism of the film is that it’s been crafted as a branded Lil Nas X experience in direct conjunction (and presumably collaboration) with the artist’s record label. Not unlike Thom Zimny’s collaborations with Springsteen, the artist is fully in control of the film. And yet, Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero recalls the very best concert films or something like Purple Rain, where the performer is the lead.
As a documentary, the film provides fans with just enough of the kind of intimate access the artist, who built his career leveraging social media, is willing to share. Diehard fans will get exactly what they hope from this and casual fans (like yours truly) will walk away with a new appreciation for the artist. Perhaps total intimacy and independence is impossible in the music genre documentary these days. Even films made after an artist’s passing rely heavily upon the public record and access.
Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.