The story of Lil Nas X’s rise from internet shitposter to one of our most innovative pop stars testifies to the musician’s tenacity, strategy and unwavering faith in himself. The Georgia native was only 20 years old when “Old Town Road,” his infectious country-trap song, went viral in 2019. Videos of children, teens and adults belting “I’m gonna take my house to the old town road” mushroomed across the internet. More than writing a hit, Lil Nas X encapsulated a new kind of road to stardom.
It’s a shame, then, that Carlos López Estrada and Zac Manuel’s plodding documentary Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero doesn’t probe its subject more. The film, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, is an anthemic document organized around Lil Nas X’s tour of the same name and split into three loose acts. It articulates, quite well, the meaning of the musician’s ascent and connects it to testimonies from an enthusiastic fanbase. Estrada (Raya and the Last Dragon, Blindspotting) and Manuel (who was DP on Descendant and Time) use footage from his tour — rehearsals, backstage prep — and interviews with show attendees to convey the star’s impact. But this approach gives a fragmented and ultimately pallid portrait of a glittering musician.
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“I want to go places no one has ever been,” Lil Nas X offers at the start of the documentary. The magic of the star is that when he makes these proclamations — broad, optimistic and often random — you believe it. Nas X has spent every year of his brief time in the spotlight striding toward new possibilities. “Old Town Road” hooked listeners and disrupted the industry algorithm. Nas X wasn’t plucked by an A&R representative and groomed by a coterie of executives. He bought a beat for cheap and sought fans the only way he knew how: through social media.
Perhaps because this history is so recent, Long Live Montero only briefly chronicles the musician’s path to fame. Through interviews and archival videos, Estrada and Manuel gesture toward Nas X’s milestones, but they don’t underscore their uniqueness. They take us back to three years before the Montero tour, showing us a giddy Nas X talking about his first song (he started making music partially because he was bored). One wishes the connective tissue between this thread and the rest of the documentary, which rightly focuses on Nas X’s impact as a queer icon, were stronger.
When Nas X came out during Pride Month in 2019, he publicly joined a tradition of Southern queer musicians. In Long Live Montero, Estrada and Manuel include an interview clip of Little Richard proclaiming the sanctity of vulnerability and openness. Watching it reminded me of an observation made by the scholar Zandria Robinson in Lisa Cortés’ recent documentary about Little Richard: “The South is the home of all things queer, of the different, of the non-normative. Queerness is not just about sexuality but about a presence in a space that is different from what we require or expect.”
Lil Nas X’s career has been defined by the unexpected. After “Old Town Road” and the 7 EP, the musician debuted his first album, Montero. The project, bearing the musician’s government name, reintroduced the artist to the world. He had a preternaturally energetic and magnetic stage presence and, with tracks like “Montero (Call Me By Your Name”) and “Industry Baby,” proved he could still surprise us.
Long Live Montero shows us facets of Lil Nas X’s personality with confidence. The backstage and behind-the-scenes footage includes some of the most delightful — and funniest — moments in the documentary, capturing the childlike wonder and optimism that cloak the musician. He teases his dancers and choreographer Sean Bankhead and lovingly trolls his management and security team. Throughout the North American leg of the tour, these people became a second family to Nas X. They help him accept the parts of him he’s still learning about and lean into full expressions of his queerness.
Watching Nas X with his chosen family prepares us for his interactions with his biological family. Long Live Montero features interviews with his parents and his brothers. There’s no one-on-one with Nas X’s young nephew, whom the musician adores and calls his first fan, but there are glimpses of the boy watching Nas X’s shows from the front row and running around backstage during the Atlanta leg of the tour. Estrada and Manuel ask Lil Nas X, in a separate, more intimate interview, about his family, but again one wishes for more probing, for greater curiosity on the part of the filmmakers. The musician is introspective and speaks with a profound self-awareness about his relationship with his family. Although they accept him and his sexuality, Nas X is still trying to figure out how to be newer versions of himself around them. He also wants to make sure they are taken care of. The reality of financial success weighs on him.
The third act of Long Live Montero is aptly titled “Becoming,” a word that encapsulates the next phase of Lil Nas X’s journey as both performer and person. What will it look like for the star to express yet-undiscovered parts of himself? Since stepping onto the scene and coming out, the artist has faced a tsunami of homophobic vitriol and ridiculous, but no less violent, accusations of Satanic affiliation. In fact, the premiere of this very documentary was delayed because of a reported bomb threat called into the venue. What happens when your becoming is threatened by brutality and hate? If Long Live Montero affirms one thing it’s that for the artist born Montero Lamont Hill, Lil Nas X is not just a persona — it’s a safe haven, too.
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