Lil Nas X doc provides entertaining glimpse into the performer’s life and music

Lil Nas X performing shirtless

“Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero,” debuting Jan. 27 at 8 p.m. on HBO, is an entertaining portrait of the out Grammy-winning rapper, singer and songwriter. Bookended by the start and finish of his first American tour, the film — co-directed by Carlos López Estrada and Zac Manuel — provides a peek behind-the-scenes; musings by Lil Nas X about his life, songs, sexuality and family; and some dazzling musical performances. 

Lil Nas X’s concert is pure theater, and his anxiety about it “being good” and worrying that things may not go well illustrates that the singer cares about delivering for his fans. “Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero” features some terrific high-energy concert footage, but the film focuses more on the musician than the music. 

The film unfolds in three parts: “Rebirth,” “Transformation” and “Becoming.” This mirrors the performer’s own journey to self-acceptance. Many of the interview scenes take place with Lil Nas X curled up in his bed, which is adorable, and adds to the confessional feel of the film. He talks candidly about creating chaos and describes his early career aspirations of wanting to be a surgeon. He explains how music helps him with anxiety attacks, and how he became more sure of himself. But Lil Nas X claims he is still careful to show only parts of himself to the world. (This would not include his chest; Lil Nas X rarely wears a shirt on stage or off.) He also considers society’s perception of him, as he shifted from being “family friendly and likable” to “Satanic” as his music became more provocative. 
If the film does not address the controversies surrounding Lil Nas X and his release of his album, “Montero,” it does feature some protesters at his Boston show. How Lil Nas X considers his haters is both revealing and amusing. (He even thinks one guy is hot.) 

More importantly, the documentary includes snippets from fans who gush about the performer and his influence, and describe how he inspired them to come out and embrace their queerness. Shots of fans at various concerts singing along are ingratiating and add to the feel-good vibe of the film.

Lil Nas X, however, appears to be still struggling with being out. He applauds his family members for growing and accepting him. One of his brothers even admits to being bisexual, noting that Lil Nas X helped him with that. Equally important is that Lil Nas X’s father, who is a bit conservative, was lecturing the performer about religion when he first came out but has since come around and hopes his child will feel comfortable talking with him about relationships. 

Lil Nas X admits that he would like to get to that place, but he is taking baby steps. (The singer does not discuss any boyfriends or romantic partners in the film). One concerted effort he makes involves him expressing his feminine side by wearing a short skirt and a Pride T-shirt when he goes to meet his family. He worries that it is too much, but also acknowledges that he needs to be more himself. (A cute moment has him teaching his nephews not to be homophobic.)

Lil Nas X also appreciates his backup dancers, a group of Black gay men who share his experience and form a kind of chosen family. Scenes of the men interacting backstage, or having fun in an arcade, are very engaging. Lil Nas X also includes a same-sex romance storyline featuring one of his dancers in his concert during the performance of the song “That’s What I Want.” 

The musical scenes are uniformly fabulous. Lil Nas X performs a half dozen tracks from his “Montero” album, including the title song, “Dead Right Now,” “Sun Goes Down” and “Industry Baby.” The film also showcases his other hits, such as “Panini” and, of course, his breakout chart-topper, “Old Town Road.”

Thankfully, “Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero,” never feels like a vanity production. Lil Nas X is equally gracious and grateful for what he has achieved, and he understands that it could all disappear tomorrow. He is adorable bopping to Deniece Williams’s “Free” in his trailer and then again enjoying the song while roller skating with his family. He shares other fun moments from seeing the wax figure of himself at Madame Tussauds — he considers kissing it — to visiting a butterfly garden and twerking to coax the insects to come down from the trees. But he also is seen delaying the start of a concert because he really needs to vomit to feel up to performing.

It may be hard to capture all of Lil Nas X’s personality in 95 minutes, but the documentary provides enough of a glimpse into his life and music that it will satisfy fans and impress viewers curious to know more about this charismatic performer. 

Long live Lil Nas X indeed!