The 2023 Toronto International Film Festival has lacked the star power it usually packs, as celebs like Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jamie Foxx, Kate Winslet and Seth Rogen have been forced to skip the splashy North American premieres of their latest works due to the ongoing Screen Actors Guild strike.
But TIFF got a boost Saturday night from one of music’s biggest names, as the “Old Town Road” crooner turned pop-rock icon Lil Nas X appeared to celebrate the world premiere of his upcoming documentary, Long Live Montero.
“Yeah, I’m also excited,” the artist, born Montero Hill, shouted from his mezzanine seat shortly after co-directors Carlos López Estrada (Blindspotting, Raya and the Last Dragon) and Zac Manuel introduced the film at Toronto’s Roy Thompson Hall — a screening delayed about 15 minutes after a bomb threat was made, reportedly by a homophobic caller.
Set over the first length of his 57-day, 21-show North American leg of his late-2022 Long Live Montero tour, the film follows the 24-year-old rising star as he moves from Detroit to New York to Atlanta to Los Angeles to San Francisco.
Like most great concert docs, though, Montero is about much more than the music, here capturing Hill facing the pressures and expectations that came with the seemingly overnight success of late-2018’s “Old Town Road” (the hip-hop infused ballad that challenged notions — and the charts — of what contemporary country music could sound like), escaping the trap of becoming a one-hit wonder, and shifting into more sexualized electronica-laced pop-rock, which just as quickly established him as a Black queer icon after he came out in June 2019.
“I went from being your friendly neighborhood cowboy to this controversial quote-unquote satanic [musician],” Hill says at one point, referencing the blowback he received to the music video for “Montero (Call Me by Your Name),” the title track to his debut LP Montero. The provocative visuals, which featured mythical and religious themes and sexually explicit imagery, including one scene in which Hill gives the devil a lap dance, were lambasted by some Christian and conservative critics, while parents complained that about the 180 the musician took from the kid-adored “Old Town Road.” (In the one of the film’s most amusing sequences, Hill sends pizza to protesters outside of his shows, explaining how he vowed to “kill them with kindness” before adding with a devilish grin: “I was a little evil in doing it. Because it was pineapple pizza.”
While Hill’s image may have shifted as quickly as he became a ubiquitous pop star, the Georgia-born singer admits he initially struggled with displaying gay or feminine mannerisms in his performances.
“I wanted to be an acceptable gay person,” Hill says in the doc, explaining that being surrounded by an all-Black, all-gay team of dancers on the Montero tour helped him become more comfortable in his own skin.
Hill said he also struggled with coming out to his family, revealing his father’s first reaction was that perhaps “the devil was tempting him.” Now, Hill says, his dad goes to gay clubs with him.
Throughout the film, the singer alternates profound revelations with the same type of playful banter he has become famous for on social media, and he admitted during a post-screening Q&A that he had hefty reservations about allowing López Estrada and Manuel to paint such an intimate portrayal of him.
“To be honest, I was like, ‘I don’t want to do this at all; this is a terrible idea,’” he said. “But then I was like, ‘F*** it, let’s do it anyway.’ I hate people knowing about my life because I can’t keep my funny persona. Now people know I’m all serious. … I’m glad I did it.”
Montero, which also included the singles “Sun Goes Down,” “Industry Baby,” and “That’s What I Want,” peaked at No. 2 on the U.S. Billboard 2000 and earned five Grammy nominations, including Album of the Year.
Asked where he goes from here, Hill teased that another stylistic shift could be on the horizon.
“I wanna do some folk music,” he said to cheers from adoring crowd.
Makes sense. He’s a already something of an American folk hero.