On January 26, 2020, Demi Lovato took to the stage at the Grammys. In a flowing white dress that fanned out around her ankles, her voice caught as she attempted to sing the first words of her song “Anyone.” With a tear rolling down her cheek, she started again, her voice soaring as she belted, “Anyone, please send me anyone/Lord, is there anyone?/I need someone.” By the end of the emotional performance, the audience and the viewers at home were left stunned.
Eighteen months earlier, the singer was in a hospital bed just ten miles away, fighting for her life after a near-fatal overdose. In her latest, and third, documentary about her life and career, “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil,” she fills in the details of the past two years spent confronting her demons.
The documentary, which premiered at South by Southwest on Tuesday, kicks off with unaired footage of a shelved project that Lovato began filming in 2018. To the world, she was on fire. Fresh off the release of her sixth studio album, Tell Me You Love Me, her breakout single “Sorry Not Sorry” was topping the charts and she was embarking on a world tour. The film shows Lovato caught in a seemingly endless loop of wardrobe changes, rushing to stage after stage to greet tens of thousands of fans each night. But as the singer admits while looking back at the old footage, she was only “allowing the cameras to see the tip of the iceberg.”
In four 20- to 30-minute episodes, the first of which releases March 23 on YouTube, Lovato takes viewers back to the months that led up to her relapse, and the ensuing fight to regain control of her life.
Between talking about her father’s battle with addiction and his death in 2013, and her depression, eating disorders, and periods of substance abuse then sobriety, it feels like there isn’t much Lovato has kept from her fans. She has released two other documentaries (Demi Lovato: Stay Strong, directed by Davi Russo, in 2012; and Demi Lovato: Simply Complicated, directed by Hannah Lux Davis, in 2017) that dive into these subjects, but this time, director Michael D. Ratner works to make it clear from the outset that this film will be different. As her friends and family members sit down for interviews, a few of them ask, “Wait, are we going to go there?” “Are we sharing this?”
When Lovato got sober in 2013, a journey she shared with fans, she was kicking addictions to Xanax and cocaine. By the time she ended up at Cedars-Sinai medical center as a result of her overdose five years later, she had tried methamphetamines, crack cocaine, heroin, and oxycodone—all within the span of a few months. Throughout the documentary, Lovato doesn’t deflect or make excuses. She bares her ugly truth as selfies pop up of her smoking crack cocaine and heroin.
It can feel voyeuristic and sometimes violating to watch Lovato speak so plainly about the worst moments of her life and the years of trauma that led up to them. Like a lot of female stars who enter the industry as children, she’s spent the majority of her life under a microscope, getting picked apart for mistakes most people make in private, and judged for how she reacted to pressure she was never prepared to handle.
For years, her response to that level of scrutiny has been straightforward honesty; she’s built her brand around telling the truth. But as she reveals in Dancing With the Devil, that openness started to feel like a prison. Out in public, fans held her up as the poster girl for recovery, and some even credited her with inspiring their own sobriety. Behind the scenes, her former team—whom she replaced in 2019 because of their controlling behavior—tried to keep her sober through constant observation and meetings with therapists, nutritionists, and dietitians. She started to crack. One month after her six-year sobriety anniversary, she was drinking.
Ratner, who produced the film alongside Lovato and her manager Scooter Braun, pulls no punches. In part two, members of the singer’s team narrate the hectic moments after she was discovered naked and covered in vomit on the morning of July 24, 2018. In painful detail, family and friends recall their shock at hearing the news, along with the panic and uncertainty they felt at Lovato’s hospital bedside. It becomes clear just how good the singer can be at hiding the truth. While maintaining an image of openness to the public, she convinced friends in the spring of 2018 that she was able to drink and keep her addiction under control—without telling them that she had started taking drugs.
When the documentary pivots back to Lovato’s perspective, she lays out the gravity of July 24 matter-of-factly: she suffered three strokes, a heart attack, and brain damage as a result of taking oxycodone she now believes was laced with fentanyl. She was put on dialysis to clean her blood, and to this day, she still has spots in her vision as a result of the stroke. Then she reveals one final, crushing detail: the same dealer that sold her oxycodone had sexually assaulted her that morning and left her for dead. “It actually wasn’t until a month after my overdose that I realized I wasn’t in any kind of state of mind to consent to anything,” she says. “That isn’t the kind of trauma that goes away overnight.”
Later, we learn that Lovato lost her virginity “in a rape” at age fifteen, to a fellow actor who was never punished, even after she reported him to the studio. When talking about the sexual assault that precipitated her overdose, she says she called the drug dealer back to her house after she was released from the hospital; partially to get high and partially because she wanted to rewrite the narrative of the assault. It’s the same instinct she had when she was assaulted as a teenager. If it was her decision to sleep with the person who assaulted her, she thought she could take back her power.
Lovato’s choices—to revisit the man who assaulted her and to relapse after her overdose—might be hard for some people to understand. Dancing With the Devil brings in Lovato’s recovery case manager, Charles Cook, to try and explain. “People wonder how she could’ve relapsed after such a traumatic experience instead of thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, you must’ve been in so much pain to put yourself in that position again.”
Watching her make these decisions as a fan, it feels like these choices are often Lovato’s attempts to regain control. In previously unreleased footage from 2018, she tells the camera, “I’ve been working on trying to be free for thirteen years of my life.”
That’s why it’s so hard to watch her fumble and make missteps that seem like hungry, desperate attempts at normalcy. By the end of part three, Lovato introduces her new boyfriend and fiancé, Max Ehrich. Watching the relationship unfold on film, you want to root for her to succeed, to get her happy ending, but if you’ve paid attention to the headlines, you also know that she and Ehrich split following allegations that he was using her to further his acting career.
By the end of the documentary, Lovato’s full recovery seems like it’s actually possible. She’s celebrating her queerness, cutting her hair, and creating a space of her own—all without worrying about the expectations and judgment she felt suffocated by for years.
Lovato has experienced more pain and trauma over the past 28 years than some people go through in a lifetime. In an old clip shown in the documentary, Bachelor host Chris Harrison asks a teenage Lovato how much heartbreak she could possibly have to write about at sixteen years old. It was an innocent question, but one that speaks to how long the singer has been isolated in her pain.
Her story, and the brutal honesty with which she tells it, is a painful, realistic portrait of addiction. It’s not pretty, it’s not simple, and that’s what Dancing With the Devil does so well: with such a heavy stigma surrounding addiction, the documentary serves as a powerful reminder that addiction is a disease—one that can be battled only one day at a time.
In part four, an interviewer reminds Lovato that this isn’t the first time she’s sworn she’d never relapse again. After a beat, he asks, “What’s different this time?”
Ultimately, she doesn’t owe anyone an answer. Lovato has no obligation to explain herself or convince people that this time really will be different. Still, she doesn’t take the easy way out. Rather than cutting herself off completely, the singer explains that she’s enjoying drinking and smoking weed in moderation. “I’ve learned that shutting the door on things makes me want to open the door even more,” she says.
It’s a controversial method, one that both her manager and her friend Elton John (both of whom appear in the final episode) don’t approve of. “Moderation doesn’t work, sorry,” John, now thirty years sober, says in an interview.
It’s impossible to know what the future holds, but in the final moments of the documentary, Lovato does finally seem free. She made it to 28, which never felt like a guarantee, and without her old team watching her diet, she enjoyed a real birthday cake for the first time in years. Her eighth studio album, Dancing With the Devil, is set for release April 2, and with her new, pink pixie cut, she declares that she’s done being defined by her lowest moments: “The best part of my life today is that I’m in control of it.”