As a subgenre of music film, tour documentaries naturally have a solid boundary – the tour. This clear and limited objective seems fitting for Lil Nas X, who looks a bit uncomfortable with the premise at points in his first feature-length doc, Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero. It follows the young, Grammy-winning firestarter from the summer of 2022, when he says he has just a month to put together his debut world tour of the same name It then moves through opening night in Detroit and highlights stops in New York, his hometown of Atlanta, his new home Los Angeles, and San Francisco, the end of the U.S. leg.
Nas, born Montero Hill, is hyper-aware of co-director Zac Manuel and his camera, looking at both of them frequently, sometimes in quick glimpses, silly faces, and with darting eyes. He tries to stop his lead choreographer and tour director, Sean Bankhead, from answering one of Manuel’s questions on Montero’s potential (maybe the director means the tour, maybe he means the man). In a different moment, Nas picks Manuel’s brain instead. They’re alone on the tour bus as his nerve-wracking, family-filled Atlanta show is imminent and Nas is passionately listening to “Free,” the popular and oft-borrowed 1976 soul song by Deniece Williams. “She was not playing with them bitches…. Do you think singers back then were saying shit like that? ‘I’m not playing with these hoes.’ You think she said something like that when she left the studio?”
The beats of Nas’ concerts lend themselves nicely, if not somewhat predictably, to beats in his bigger story. The relationship between Nas’s queerness and his family dynamic is built out around the moment he performs his pop-rock hit “That’s What I Want,” in Atlanta. It’s a song where he longs for love from another man, brought to life on stage with a will-they-won’t-they push and pull between Nas and one of his dancers. It culminates with the shadow of a makeout session. Before it, in more ordinary moments behind the scenes, Nas reveals that he hasn’t fully accepted that his dad accepts him. His dad has moved on from thinking fame, fortune, and Satan may have turned his son gay, Nas knows, but he still can’t bring himself to talk to him about dating, scarred from years in their conservative Christian closet. But Nas’ dad is proud of him and is loud about it – there’s a clip of him belting “That’s What I Want” in the audience. The films’ most intimate moments are anchored to the work, not intimacy for intimacy’s sake.
But one of the most refreshing things about Long Live Montero – especially knowing how empty and blatantly self-serving celebrity music docs can be – is the movie’s hyper-awareness of itself. We see the film in progress when Nas shies away; when the cameraperson stumbles trying to keep up with Nas on roller skates; when Nas refuses to let them into his dressing room; when he is quite obviously restating a question asked off-camera, as filmmakers often ask of their subject; when his tour’s creative director asks him not to leave her high-five hanging on film. In these moments, and the narrative structure of Nas’ interior life revolving around the beats of the show – no more, no less – the film acknowledges that it’s being made. It knows its a product. It knows it sits in a particular genre and has things it must do because of that. It’s unmistakably incomplete. In an age of influencing, parasocial relationships, and feigned intimacy, there’s something satisfying about that.
This makes it a little funny that an official HBO description of the Long Live Montero is so hyperbolic, leaning into the way a generation of music docs feel more like marketing propaganda.
Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero captures the creative dynamo and mesmerizing star power of Lil Nas X, the Grammy Award-winning rapper, singer, and songwriter, as he embarks on his first-ever headlining U.S. tour. With unparalleled access, the film follows the genre-breaking artist as he navigates his meteoric rise to fame, his desire to inspire his fans, and his place in the pantheon of Black queer icons.
Most of this language does way too much. I didn’t see a creative dynamo, I saw someone who stumbled into a hobby with enough earnestness and charm to make it a lucrative career. Nas himself says he made a song out of boredom in college and embraced it as an escape from the anxiety that plagued him after the death of his grandmother, a woman who saw him as a star well before he ever thought to be one. I didn’t really see star power that was as effortless and innate as that sounds. I saw a scared young man work like hell to do something he wasn’t sure he could. He frets during rehearsals – he frets a lot. A day before the first show, he wonders if he’ll succeed or “freeze up and go back inside of my dad’s balls.” I saw a community he was grateful for – Bankhead, his creative director, his dancers, his family – as the thing that really shot him into the stratosphere with their own effort and love.
Nas’s desires are less clearly to inspire his fans than they are to not fuck up or be misconstrued. He’s largely a fan himself – in his LA home, he shows off a massive pop culture shrine on a bedroom wall, a sprawling collage including photos of Viola Davis (who, he says, didn’t recognize him when he giddily greeted her on the street), Alexa Demie as Maddy in Euphoria, and Bad Bunny. He more clearly wants to make the people who think of him similarly are proud of him – he says as much when he sings “Sun Goes Down.”
That performance and the moments around it are important. They deal with suicidal ideation – and according to the LGBTQ crisis support organization The Trevor Project, nearly half of all queer young people have seriously considered suicide. Trans and nonbinary youth have higher rates of attempts, too. The Trevor Project says suicidal ideation rates among queer youth have trended upwards in recent years, as have political attacks and isolation. Long Live Montero shows how someone of such huge stature and personality can also feel very small – small enough to write a song like that.
When Nas considers the relentless attacks against him, alleging he’s satanic and connived to hypersexualize little kids by coming out as gay after the massive success of “Old Town Road,” he’s concerned and mousy. As he came out, he says, he worried his nephew – an adorable little boy named Chase who he calls his first fan – would look at him differently too. He’s uncomfortable on stage catching ass from Saucy Santana. He freaks out about wearing a skirt in front of his family. He says he originally wanted to be “the acceptable gay person… ‘this is the one that doesn’t shove it down our throats.’” He chose differently, though, and the world is better for it.
All of this is a reminder that we make celebrities out to be bigger than they are with our hyperbole, condemnations, and standoms. It’s not always them hierarchizing themselves – on tour, Nas is just putting on a play, and even just about says as much. Like SZA’s SOS tour, Long Live Montero, the roadshow, really does give theater kid. And sometimes things are falling apart behind the curtain. Lil Nas X is much more regular than HBO gives him credit for, when relatability is what really sells.