The ability to be open, honest, and unapologetically himself — loudly, proudly and in public — is Lil Nas X’s superpower. It’s the reason he’s hailed as one of the most important pop stars of his generation, and it’s in moments of openness when his documentary film Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero shines. The film had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) Saturday night, and it explores how Nas X’s extraordinary singularity isn’t just because he came out as gay at the height of his rise to fame, but that he continuously shares what coming out has meant for him — the challenges, joys, fears, and all, and the impact it's had on his fans.
On its surface, Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero is simply a snapshot of the makings of a tour. The timeline flips from the artist onstage in all of his perfectly sheened six-pack glory with his signature smooth vocals and surprisingly tight choreography (you don’t see many male rappers twerking on beat) to various points in the behind-the-scenes of the show. If you’re familiar with the genre of music documentaries, you know the details of putting a tour together can be depicted as fascinating (Beyoncé’s Homecoming) or mundane (Shawn Mendes’s In Wonder). Long Live Montero falls somewhere in the middle. A moment where Nas X is trying to decipher how tight a harness contraption should be in his show is nothing new for the initiated, but another sequence in which he falls ill right before he’s meant to go onstage, repeatedly gags until he throws up, dusts himself off and heads towards his screaming fans is riveting (and a tad unsettling – no hustle is worth your health). The tour footage and the peek behind the curtain of the magical world of Montero seem to exist in the film to prove that this overnight sensation turned international superstar is putting in WORK. And it works.
This whole tour felt like a support group for people who are trying to find the truest version of themselves.
Carlos López Estrada, director
It’s when the film goes beyond the elaborate stage set ups and daring costumes to get to the heart of Montero Lamar Hill (Lil Nas X’s given name), the man behind the persona, that it becomes more than just another artist-approved PR vehicle masquerading as a music doc. Told through moments when each of his family members visit him on tour, Lil Nas X takes us inside his family’s relationship to his identity, and how his step-mom, dad, and brothers reacted to his coming out.
“I’ve been out for awhile, and it even touched me,” the film’s editor Andrew Morrow told Unbothered on the red carpet. “In this film, you get to see [Lil Nas X] grapple with refamiliarizing himself with his family after coming out. It’s very universal for Black queers [who are] coming out. You’ve grown up and held this part of yourself back for a long time, so there’s this issue of never really being yourself with family. It’s incredible to see someone at his present standing in the world, as this global pop star, still dealing with those same things.”
In a particularly memorable scene, Lil Nas X chooses to wear a skirt the night his dad and his side of the family come to his show in Atlanta, and he expresses his fears over showing his family this side of him. I’m paraphrasing, but he essentially says that it’s one thing to come out to your family, and another to be walking around in a short skirt around them. It’s a touching moment because the story ends there. There’s no big homophobic reaction to his skirt; Lil Nas X’s family is just excited to be there, supporting their Montero. It’s a wholesome, quietly radical moment in a film that takes a pretty straightforward approach to documenting its subject. In a world where we know that queer joy is under attack, and existing as an out gay person can be dangerous, it’s beautiful to see someone living so authentically — especially with the support of those around him.
When you feel stuck in life, do the thing you are most afraid to do.
lil nas x at TIFF
Co-directors Carlos López Estrada and Zac Manuel are clearly part of that support system. “I think our responsibility was to allow [Lil Nas X] to tell the most honest version of his story. Blackness, masculinity, queerness exist on such a broad spectrum and it’s important to allow every single part of that spectrum to really shine and to be understood,” Manuel said at the TIFF premiere. “This whole tour felt like a support group for people who are trying to find the truest version of themselves. What I hope the movie does is to continue to amplify that message and just let people know it’s OK to have questions, and OK to have doubts, and it’s OK to be in dark places. That’s what makes us us,” López Estrada continued.
Lil Nas X doesn’t let us see him in his darkest places, and that’s refreshing. Even when Long Live Montero delves into the horrific homophobic backlash Lil Nas X receives, he reverts to humor to shake it off, joking about the pineapple pizza he sent to protestors outside of his show and how he thinks it’s “nice” that bigots have a cause to bond over. There’s nothing funny about the very real threats that Lil Nas X faces daily (there was a bomb threat at the TIFF premiere, which delayed the red carpet by 20 minutes before authorities confirmed the threat wasn’t credible or personally targeted), but it is inspiring to watch him maintain his joy in a world hellbent on stripping it from him.
Sure, the film may have missed some opportunities to dig a bit deeper into Nas X, but it’s beautiful nonetheless to watch the artist’s trajectory from a closeted kid hoping for more streams on Spotify (a flashback shows Nas X before he had broken a thousand – now he has 29.1 million listeners per month) to a confident, self-assured rockstar casually meeting Madonna backstage or grinding with Saucy Santana in front of thousands of die-hard fans.
“He’s the first male celebrity I wanted to fuck and be at the same time,” on fan hilariously shares during the documentary. Lil Nas X’s connection to his fans is on full display in Long Live Montero. The most emotion comes from confessionals interspersed throughout the doc, featuring queer fans who have been touched by Nas X’s audacity to be fully himself. Their stories are where his legacy lies. Lil Nas X is a beacon of possibility for Black queer youth, like Little Richard was before him (he gets a shout out in the doc), and a shining example of what happens when you give people space to be free.
For someone who’s built his brand off of being a Twitter troll so brash and quick-witted on social media, the real Lil Nas X seems more subdued than his social media personality would suggest. But there’s one thing both Nas X and Montero seem to share the most: their commitment to unshakable self confidence and a fearless approach to pure, unmitigated joy. One scene where Lil Nas X rants about needing to poop before a show will leave you laughing like a kid hearing a fart joke for the first time.
During the film’s Q&A, a fan asked Nas X if he wanted to hang out because he seemed like “the funnest hang ever.” And that’s exactly why Long Live Montero succeeds as a time capsule of an artist at a crucial time in his career. Aside from the stress of touring, or the meteoric rise of “Old Town Road,” the backlash that came with fame and the “Call Me By Your Name” video, Nas X seems to be having FUN, and the film is a reflection of that. It will make you want to book a ticket to his next show, and find out his secret sauce to enjoying life.
Here’s the advice Lil Nas X left us with at the post-screening Q&A:
“A lot of times when you feel stuck in life, do the thing you are most afraid to do but you have an inner knowing inside you [telling you] you need to do that thing,” Lil Nas X said to a rapt room. “For me, the first time it was like, ‘I need to make music.’ But I had this pressure to be the first person in my family to graduate college. I was like, nah, fuck that, I’m going to make music, and I’m just going to have to deal with that feeling of people being disappointed with me,” he continued. “And the second time was me coming out of the closet. That was my biggest fear. The third time was the Montero “Call Me By Your Name” video and [people saying] I’m being overtly gay and satanic stuff, but it was very important and it helped me grow. Do that thing that you’re most afraid to do.”