Typically, the appeal of watching concert footage versus listening to an artist’s studio recordings is drawing energy from the thousands of people in the crowd singing and dancing along. But with Billie Eilish’s new Disney Plus concert film Happier Than Ever: A Love Letter to Los Angeles, I was grateful not to have the distraction of an in-person audience.
Anyone who’s listened to Eilish’s music knows what sets the singer apart is her poignant, evocative voice that often barely rises above a whisper. In her new cinematic concert experience, out Friday on, we see Eilish take the stage of the legendary Hollywood Bowl in her hometown of Los Angeles and perform songs from her latest album, Happier Than Ever. She plays songs in the album’s sequential order, accompanied by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, guitarist Romero Lubambo and her brother, singer-songwriter Finneas.
Of course, with COVID-19 restrictions, there’s no live audience to take in Eilish’s performance. But without wild cheers from the crowds that usually accompany her shows, viewers are able to absorb the beauty of Eilish’s voice and the clarity of her lyrics without interruption. It feels like the way her album was meant to be experienced.
In between songs, we see an animated version of Eilish pass through LA and take in the gleaming city and its landmarks. The real-life Eilish appears to feel right at home on the Hollywood Bowl’s stage, giving audiences flawless performances of each track that sound just as good as the recorded version. My Future, one of Eilish’s most empowering songs, is sure to give viewers goosebumps. In Everybody Dies, violins beautifully wail into the night, accompanied by Eilish’s clear vocals. The flashing red lights and blissful chaos of Oxytocin makes for a standout performance. There’s also an intimate performance of Your Power, with her brother by her side playing guitar.
Gentle ballads culminate in an electrifying performance of the second-to-last (and, for me, most anticipated) track, Happier Than Ever. I had high expectations given how popular this single has become — and the fact that it’s the album and film’s namesake — and Eilish didn’t disappoint. Her vocals effortlessly climb from a gentle croon at the song’s opening to powerful bars by its close. I may or may not have screamed along at my computer (as I said, I’m really glad fans like me weren’t in the audience to ruin this performance). Even as Eilish shouts, “You made me hate this city” in the song’s outro, there’s a sense her relationship with LA is quite complex, that beneath all the struggles brought on by fame and heartbreak the last few years, she possesses an underlying love for the city which, as she describes in the film, “really formed me into who I am.”
Granted, I do wish the film offered more commentary from Eilish, both about her hometown and particularly about her new music. But I suppose this is how she intended us to experience her performance: quietly, without crowds or explanations. It reminds me of a verse in Not My Responsibility, in which the musician says: “Do you know me? Really know me?” Here, she implies we don’t, and that she doesn’t owe us any deep revelations. What it’s really about, what it’s always been about, is the music, in its purest form. And that’s exactly what she’s given us.