Two of pop’s biggest stars are about to go head-to-head in the album charts. And right now they’re competing for streaming eyeballs too. Netflix has a warts-and-all documentary about Lewis Capaldi, How I’m Feeling Now, in which you get to see the man behind the mic. And Disney Plus has an equally candid documentary about Ed Sheeran, The Sum of it All, in which you, er, get to see the man behind the mic.
The documentaries do of course differ – not least because the Sheeran series is a four-parter broken into individual themed episodes, while the Capaldi one is a one-off – but at heart they’re very similar. Both documentaries offer lots of behind-the-scenes filming and old phone footage to delight fans, with highlights including Sheeran performing with Stormzy and Eminem, as well as Capaldi’s cheerful clowning. But while pop stardom is the starting point, it’s not really the story. In fact, the Sheeran documentary is noticeably light on full songs until well into the third of its four episodes.
Both the movie and TV show are really about ordinary people living extraordinary lives and the extreme demands of those lives. What happens when your teenage dream becomes a corporation employing hundreds of people with you as the reluctant CEO? And what happens when you discover that your fame and your fortune won’t cancel your impostor syndrome and Tourettes (Capaldi), or protect you from grief and the terrifying prospect of losing your soulmate (Sheeran)?
Ultimately both of these documentaries are about that most un-rock 'n' roll topic: growing up.
Every cowboy sings a sad, sad song
If you’re not a huge fan of the pop stars themselves, then the success or otherwise of each documentary largely comes down to how much you like the subject. I’ll admit I’m not a big fan of either man’s music, but I think Capaldi is a brilliant pop star and a naturally likeable guy; that’s evident throughout his documentary. He’s definitely the kind of pop star you’d like to be friends with. The Capaldi documentary is a show you can love even if you don’t love the music.
Sheeran’s show is a harder sell for me. While he comes across as a decent human, husband and father – his emotions (particularly his terror and grief) are clearly as genuinely felt as they are painful to watch – I didn’t find myself feeling any more of a connection to him or to his music than I did at the outset. The documentary does its best. It plays sad music over footage of happy times, making me wonder when I’d see a text overlay saying: OH MAN, WAIT TILL YOU SEE HOW SAD THIS BIT IS GONNA GET. But I found it overly manipulative, the foreshadowing far too obvious for far too long.
Capaldi’s documentary isn’t immune to filmmakers’ tricks, either. For example, the use of fast cuts to make cheering crowds seem scary in the context of Capaldi’s panic attacks is rather tasteless – but it’s not as blatant in its attempts to yank your heart strings, and Capaldi often subverts the clichés.
Why so serious?
It’s all Thom Yorke’s fault. Before Radiohead’s 1998 tour documentary Meeting People Is Easy, the music doc was usually a celebratory affair – its job was to sell an album or tour, and you didn’t do that by letting people see how dull the life of a rock star (and how dull the average rock star) was. Rock and pop docs were aspirational, overexcited and often rather air-headed. But Radiohead’s moody, miserable and often terribly tedious tour film changed the game. All of a sudden, if you wanted to sell you needed to be sad.
Metallica took that sad ball and made it a serious money-spinner with their metal-in-therapy documentary Some Kind of Monster in 2004, and since then music documentaries have been as much about stars’ sadness as their songs. Then Instagram came along and made it even worse.
The social media platform’s inauthentic authenticity, where pop stars showed us what they were really like in carefully cropped vignettes or expertly edited videos created by armies of pros and with ample support from beauty techs, make-up artists and celebrity stylists, made “showing you the real me” a crucial currency for the modern celebrity.
By the time the best streaming services came along with their big budgets and big audiences, the shift to sadness was complete. With the odd exception – the joyful, retrospective Beastie Boys Story (2020, Apple TV Plus) or the self-indulgent U2 puff piece A Sort of Homecoming (2023, Disney Plus) – it doesn’t matter whether it’s Billie Eillish’s The World’s A Little Blurry (2021, Apple TV Plus), Selena Gomez’s My Mind & Me (2022, Apple TV Plus) or arguably the pinnacle of the Instagram-era pop doc, Taylor Swift’s Miss Americana (2020, Netflix). The modern rock or pop documentary likes to take you on a journey through sad valleys before ending with the triumphant peak of the new record, tour or fashion tie-in.
Which is the bigger hit?
For me at least, the Sheeran documentary is less engaging than Capaldi’s one. If the music doesn’t move you, you’re effectively watching an overlong, officially approved documentary about a workaholic millionaire encountering some of the sadnesses many of us experience as we age, such as pain and loss. You’re sympathetic, of course you are. But you might not want to spend two hours hearing about it when you’ve got your own stuff to deal with.
Maybe it’s a charisma thing. While Capaldi is eminently watchable throughout, the highlight of the Sheeran documentary for me was the arrival of Stormzy in episode three. The contrast between Sheeran’s ordinary ‘bloke-ism’ and Stormzy’s megawatt magnetism couldn’t be more stark, which is perhaps why he isn’t on screen for very long. But I think there’s more to it than that.
There’s a scene in the Sheeran documentary that I thought was telling. He’s on tour in Germany and goes out for a night out with his wife and camera crew. They go to a beer festival, and it’s exactly what you would expect – lederhosen, oompah music and so on – and at first Sheeran just takes it all in. And then he decides that the event should really be about him.
There’s no “do you think they’d mind if I…?” or “do you think I should see if they…?”; just a statement: he’s going to get up and perform. Which he does, playing his own decidedly non-oompah song, Perfect. It’s presented as a triumph and clearly went down well enough with the 'beered-up' crowd, but I found it off putting. There’s no humility there, no artist being reluctantly but happily dragged up to perform. Ed wanted attention, and what Ed wants, Ed gets.
I think that’s why I found the Sheeran documentary so hard to engage with. Where Capaldi is riddled with self-doubt, Sheeran’s confidence is rock solid; where Capaldi can’t believe his luck, Sheeran doesn’t believe in luck. Sheeran has never doubted that he would be a pop star, and he famously outlined his long-term career plan to the Guardian back in 2012.
I think that’s apparent in his music, which is precision-tooled and for me, passion-free, the sound of Excel columns being clicked and to-do items being ticked off. And the documentary doesn’t do anything to dispel that. Maybe the passion was left on the cutting room floor, but when Sheeran talks about music it’s in the language of middle management: career goals achieved, nights sold, seats filled. When he says he loves grime music – and I’m sure he does – it’s with all the passion of a middle-aged politician pretending he can’t get enough of Lil Nas X.
Don’t worry, though. Both shows are peppered with fun stuff, and both end on a high note: Capaldi in a happier place preparing for the release of his new album, which drops on May 19, and Sheeran in a happier place preparing for the release of his album, which drops May 5. Because at heart, these shows have a job to do – and that job is to sell records and concert tickets. You don’t do that by sending your viewers away with a sad face.