Lil Nas X's 'Long Live Montero' - documentary follows the musician's life and tour

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday March 12, 2024
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Lil Nas X in 'Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero' (photo: HBO)
Lil Nas X in 'Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero' (photo: HBO)

As I watched the new concert documentary "Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero," detailing his first-ever headlining U.S. tour, now streaming on HBO, images of fellow diva Madonna flashed through my mind, recalling her landmark tour documentary, "Truth or Dare," but also her use of religious imagery (i.e. "Like a Prayer" video) and shocking sexuality ("Erotica" CD and book) that must have inspired him.

Lil Nas (real name Montero Lamar Hill) is the Black gay genre-bending hip hop singer/songwriter/dancer, whose first breakthrough hit "Old Town Road," married rap with country music, and remained number one on the Billboard Hot 100 for a record 19 weeks. Soon after that global sensation, he came out during Pride month in 2019.

The video of his song, "Call Me By Your Name," from his debut album "Montero," in which he descends into hell and does a lap dance for the devil, sparked enormous controversy (plus a publicity bonanza), critics calling him a satanist.

Lil Nas X in 'Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero' (photo: HBO)  

Self-acceptance journey
He was even decried by fellow Black artists for being a cowboy who made kid-friendly music, or as a sex-obsessed provocateur attempting to indoctrinate young people into a gay agenda. The attacks continued with the release of his latest video, "J Christ," with Lil Nas playing you know who.

This sketchy, occasionally compelling film follows him performing on stage during his tour, but also behind the scenes as he adjusts to his stardom. As he rehearses, the filmmakers question him about his personal life, family, fame, as he embraces his gay identity and its impact on his fans.

The film, directed by Carlos López Estrada and Zac Manuel, unfurls in three parts: "Rebirth," "Transformation," and "Becoming," which follows the tripart video introducing the concert's three-act structure. It also parallels Lil Nas's journey to self-acceptance, which is complicated and not as smooth as his lyrics suggest.

Besides Madonna (who visits him prior to his show), another strong influence/connection has been the late rock'n'roll pioneer Little Richard; Lil Nas dressed up as him last Halloween. The movie features the archival 1972 interview clip, when asked about his homosexuality, Little Richard declared, "God gave it to me and I need to show it to the world. Let it all hang out."

While meant to be uplifting, Lil Nas expresses regret that Little Richard couldn't be fully free and all he could be, since other times he returned to the closet denying being gay.

Lil Nas divulges that he felt like a "stepchild" in his own family. When he told his father Robert Stafford he was gay, Stafford wondered if the devil was tempting him at the start of his career. Later he addresses the crowd, "Thanks for being here, because I didn't use a condom."

As for his stepmom, Lil Nas confesses, "It still feels really weird being flamboyant or closer to myself when I show most people around her."

Promotional poster for 'Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero' (photo: HBO)  

He admits his sexuality is "the elephant in the room" and he's hesitant to share any information about any boyfriends or who he's dating, with his family. Lil Nas does help his older brother Tramon, to come out as bisexual, but Tramon makes it perfectly clear to the camera, "I'm not gay."

The motives of any conditional acceptance are a bit dubious when another brother opines, "We used to have a love-hate relationship, but as we grow, we started liking each other more, and then boom, he got rich. There you go," since Lil Nas funds any reunion they have.

One revealing scene occurs with Lil Nas debating on whether to wear a skirt and a shirt with varieties of Pride flags on it, to a family function, worrying about being seen as "the acceptable gay person." In one endearing scene he teaches his nephews not to be homophobic.

Tantalize and tease
The verité-style documentary's beginning has a frenzied pace to it, undoubtedly because Lil Nas and his team had only a month to conceive, choreograph, and rehearse his tour. He's interviewed throughout the movie, often curled up in bed, cuddling Bronco, his plush wolf toy, with little divulged, vaguely enough to tantalize and tease.

The viewer should keep in mind Lil Nas's record company bankrolled the film, though it would be unfair to call it a vanity project. Still, the movie seems carefully controlled, so there are few surprises.

Oddly, the film doesn't discuss any of the controversies surrounding him. The closest it touches on the subject is in Boston, where an anti-LGBTQ Christian group protested outside the concert venue. His reaction is empathetic ("I think it's really great when people have a sense of belonging to something bigger.") but critical of their hatefulness ("It's kind of fucked up what they were saying").

Lil Nas X in 'Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero' (photo: HBO)  

He responds by making a TikTok about how he found one of the homophobic men cute. He sends a pizza to feed them while picketing, but with a trickster gleam in his eye, says, "I was a little evil in doing it, because there was only pineapple on the pizza."

We learn other tidbits about him. He suffers from anxiety attacks and during one of them following his grandmother's death, he found an escape in music, felt a divine presence that told him "this is what I'm supposed to be doing in life."

In college he was studying to be a cardiovascular surgeon because his grandmother and other family members had heart problems. His closest friends are his gay dancers "who give him the freedom to understand himself more."

He speaks longwindedly on the best time to poop before a show. He feels there's a spiritual connection to his music, but cannot articulate it. He doesn't mention any romantic partners. He confesses every day "he feels more free being who he is."

Lil Nas is a charismatic, groundbreaking, obstacle-busting performer, yet it's a bit off-putting when he's the one telling us his accomplishments, but he's hardly alone. The film is bursting with gushing fan testimonies sharing how Lil Nas's candor enabled them to come out and be themselves.

One guy exclaims, "You seem like the funnest person on earth to hang out with," while another discloses, "He's the first male celebrity I wanted to fuck and be at the same time."

Then there's acclaim from cast members, such as choreographer Sean Bankhead: "He's breaking down barriers. There's nobody today quite like him. Nobody's going to be able to touch him."

Lil Nas adds to all the praise, "I want to go places no one has ever been and do something that is great, super grand, and big. This tour changes the world."

He defines his next project as happy escapism. "There's something brewing that's going to be so amazing for me, just talking about this puts my body in a different plane."

In one campy scene while dressed in drag, he kisses the uncanny Madame Tussaud wax figure made in his image. Is he a visionary, or is it youthful egotism?

By far the best parts of this documentary are the concert songs arranged in elaborate theatrical productions, glam rock with dazzling choreography and eye-grabbing costumes, reminiscent of early artsy MTV videos.

With his infectious energy, Lil Nas is on the verge of becoming a gay hip-hop pop diva/icon. There's no reason to doubt his exclamation, "I'm just getting started."

Certainly, he's a testament to the power of liberation, of being able to be who you are, willing to push boundaries, as he explores and builds confidence in his queer identity.

It will be fascinating to see if, as a trailblazer, he has staying power or burns out by believing his own publicity or overwhelming himself in his quest to "become the truest and greatest version of himself."

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