You know you’re watching a true pop star when that person’s identity — their very existence — smashes boundaries. Elvis Presley was a country boy who mixed country and rockabilly and the blues, and with his sneer and black hair and mascara he looked like no human had ever looked before. Prince was a one-man band who mixed funk and rock with his own synth-pop bitches’ brew and sang, “Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?”
Lil Nas X, following in the footsteps of Elvis’s blue suede shoes and Prince’s James Brown-with-wings delirium, is a Black queer confessional pop hip-hop diva who put himself on the map with a viral single, recorded in about an hour, in which he appropriated the cowboy mystique of the Wild West — and did it with a wink of pure sincerity. In “Old Town Road,” he turned the tables on Elvis 70 years later, doing to country what Elvis did to the blues, stealing it like fire, mirroring it back to the world as righteous fun. The song wasn’t just country rap — it was a tasty, thrilling layer cake. So is Lil Nas X.
In the loosely rambunctious and at times exhilarating backstage concert movie “Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero,” he comes on as exactly who he is: the latest star to remake the pop universe, and by the time the film is over it’s hard to imagine the universe without him. That’s how much he tears down walls and makes old categories irrelevant. Lil Nas X’s real name is Montero Lamar Hill (yes, he was named after a Mitsubishi). The movie, co-directed with scrappy vibrance by Carlós Lopez Estrada (“Blindspotting”) and Zac Manuel, is a spontaneous, engaging ramble that chronicles Lil Nas X’s first concert tour, which took place from September to November 2022. But the film also has the quality of an on-the-fly psychodrama, or at least a kind of meditation, since Lil Nas X speaks, at great length, about what it takes — and what it means — for a star like himself to be queer and open about it.
He’s talking about the toll, and about the liberation, but it’s not simply a personal odyssey. When Lil Nas X came out, in June 2019, he was busting down the limits of what a certain kind of music star could be. He was an artist rooted in the traditions of rap, a form that prizes masculine braggadochio and defines that in a particular way. Simply put: as not gay. Lil Nas X, by declaring who he was, was saying: No, rap isn’t “straight” or “gay.” And if you think it is, you’re blinding yourself to the true meaning of sexual identity.
That’s one of many reasons why his coming out meant so much to so many people. He seemed to be offering a kind of benediction to a new way of being. At the start of “Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero,” he says that he wants his stage act to be “great, and super-grand, and big,” and that’s just what it is. From the first concert, in a beautiful old theater in Detroit, the show has a larger-than-life quality, with every move and song and gesture invested with Lil Nas X’s transformative mystique.
Viewed next to the hallowed rock history of pompadours and wild hair, Lil Nas X, on stage, has hair styled so high it looks like a nuclear cloud; on his body is a gold breastplate over a bare midriff. Tall and ripped, he’s gorgeous — a leonine statue with a light in his eye. Says one fan outside a show, “He’s the first male celebrity I wanted to fuck and be at the same time,” which says a great deal. His moves have a language all their own: now imperious, now fornicating, now mincing, now rock-star swaggering. Born in 1999, he’s a 21st-century collage artist, and what holds his act together is the joyful ferocity that animates every move. Simply put, he means it.
Lil Nas X and his team had just one month to choreograph and rehearse the tour. We see black-and-white footage of a rehearsal 22 days before the first date, where he talks about how scary it is to have to learn it all that fast. The film also takes us back to a few key moments from the past, like when he first encountered the Nine Inch Nails track “34 Ghosts IV,” the sample that undergirds “Old Town Road” (as soon as he heard it, he says that he knew the song would be big), or how his family members reacted to the news that he was gay. Most of them are in the movie, visiting him backstage, and Nas describes their acceptance of him as a work in progress. There are levels of acceptance, suggested by the word… acceptance. Are you “accepting” who someone is, or are you embracing it? Just allowing the reality of it to be?
That, in a way, is what Lil Nas X is meditating on throughout the documentary, as he lolls on a couch pillow, talking to the filmmakers. He has a playful sense of his own complication and is wickedly funny, putting on an English accent and, at one point, giving pizza to the protesters outside a Boston show — the ones who are denouncing him as a tool of Satan. “I was a little evil in doing it,” he says with a chuckle, “because it was pineapple pizza.”
There’s a lyrical sequence in which he roller skates with family members, after having arranged for the 1976 Deniece Williams track “Free” to play on the roller-rink soundtrack. The number is an anthem of liberation, sung by a woman who doesn’t want to be tied down. Yet the music of it, the lyrical wistful sound of it, is profoundly romantic. And I think the reason that Lil Nas X loves it so much is that he’s a romantic — not just about love but about the power of liberation, of being able to be who you are, in his own life and in all our lives. That’s the torch he’s carrying onstage.
Then again, he’s an old-school romantic as well, and that’s something you don’t exactly see everyday in hip-hop. The highlight of the movie may be his onstage performance of “That’s What I Want,” with its plaintive militance as he sings, “‘Cause it don’t feel right when it’s late at night,/And it’s just me and my dreams.” “Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero” channels the grandeur of what it means to put your dreams out there, for everyone to see.