Rapper and pop star Lil Nas X gets incredible vulnerable in the new HBO Original documentary about his life and rise to stardom, Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero. But he also sparkles with his signature uniqueness.
From co-directors Carlos López Estrada and Zac Manuel, the doc takes viewers along on the star’s first tour, painting an intimate portrait of what it was like for him to navigate his relationship with his family in the context of having recently come out as gay in the public eye.
“This film is a very sincere and honest representation of an artist going through, like a pivotal moment of transition in their life,” Manuel tells MovieMaker.
Following the rapper, whose full name is Montero Lamar Hill, on his 2022 tour, Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero offers a humanizing look at the “Old Town Road” rapper — and Manuel hopes that honesty will transcend viewers’ preconcieved notions about him, especially in light of the recent controversy surrounding his latest single, “J Christ.” (Some Christians online have taken umbrage with imagery of Nas dressed as Jesus on the cross, as well as a promotional TikTok of him eating communion wafers and altar wine. Nas apologized in a video on Twitter, clarifying that he didn’t mean to “mock” Christianity).
“Regardless of how you feel about him or the things that he’s done recently, any person in this situation, I think, would be confronted with feelings that they’ve never felt before, going through a situation that they’ve never gone through before,” Manuel says.
Estrada adds that Nas always encouraged the filmmakers to “make it the most fun, the most weird, the most unique, the most emotional” documentary they could.
We spoke with both Estrada and Manuel about how they navigated filming Lil Nas X’s interactions with his family, capturing his vulnerable emotions, and showing audiences the real person behind the pop star.
Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero is now streaming on Max.
Read our Q&A below.
Q&A With Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero Directors Carlos López Estrada and Zac Manuel
MovieMaker: This documentary is coming out in the wake of the controversy surrounding his “J. Christ:” music video. Do you hope that this movie gives audiences a better understanding of who Lil Nas X is as a person beyond being the various controversies that he’s ignited on the internet?
Manuel: This film is a very sincere and honest representation of an artist going through a pivotal moment of transition in their life. Regardless of how you feel about him or the things that he’s done recently, I think any person in the situation would be confronted with feelings that they’ve never felt before, going through a situation that they’ve never gone through before. So I hope that people come away with this understanding that, actually, he’s been able to transcend, get through this moment, with a lot of grace, with a lot of integrity, with a lot of love, and with a lot of reverence for the people around him. And ultimately, that’s not a facade. That’s not a construction of what we did. That’s who he is. And I hope that people can walk away from this film, having a deeper understanding of who he is as a person.
Estrada: I think what we were most interested in was not necessarily the dialogue between him and critics and what people are saying, but more than anything, just like how he experiences it and how he deals with it and how it affects or doesn’t affect what he’s trying to do. So it wasn’t so much trying to cover both sides and try to give a macro look — it was just like, ‘This is what it’s like to be him.’ This is how he’s giving interviews… the protesters outside of a show and how he handled that with grace and with humor and with with creativity. So, I think rather than like trying to get super deep into the controversy, we were just more excited about seeing, who is this person, knowing that he’s in the headlines every other day? Yes, that’s an important aspect of it. But also, most importantly, he’s making decisions about whether he can or should wear a skirt before meeting his family. That was equally as important in the movie as the bigger stuff. So not to say that we’re ignoring it, because obviously, that’s a very important part of who he is. But I think that we just really wanted to also cut through it and and ultimately just tell a story about a person who’s going through this crazy transformative stage of his life.
MM: How did the idea to make a documentary about Lil Nas X begin?
Zac Manuel: Carlos was one of the writers on the stage show. So when they were working on how to design a more theatrical experience, Carlos was there kind of in the early parts of that process. Then once the show was kind of formulated, and they were in the rehearsal process, they hadn’t done any shows yet, they brought me on, really just to kind of capture — the general idea was just to capture a pivotal moment in a very important artist’s life and career as they were going on their first ever tour. Hhe had done some performances throughout the pandemic and before, but this was the first time he was actually going to be performing an entire show, a very theatrical and autobiographical show, for audiences who can really get to see him.
That was kind of our initial goal — we just need to be as detail oriented as possible about how they’re constructing the show. What’s his process of rehearsal? How is he feeling about all of these things? Like, what anxieties or trepidations did he have about going into this tour experience for the first time? What’s he worried about? Are people going to show up? That was one of his concerns. We’re like, of course people are going to show up. But for him, I think it was very legitimate, like, are people going to come? Is it going to be sold out? Like, what is the attendance going to be like? How are people going to react? And how are people going to respond to what I’m doing or what I’m going to show them?
But as we progressed, there were a couple of different moments that happened throughout, almost like sparks. They showed us, Okay, there’s something underneath the surface. It’s a thread worth following. One of them was maybe on the second day of shooting, when we went into his house, there’s like this whole wall with all these memes, and everything’s really funny. But in the middle of that wall is a picture of Marsha P. Johnson. It’s interesting that amongst all the humor and ridiculousness of the images on this wall that actually, front and center, right for you to see, is one of the most important queer activists of our time. So that was kind of one of those moments where it’s like that, I was able to see very quickly a different level of consciousness that he had about who he was and what his place was in a legacy of other queer performers and artists and activists.
MM: How did you approach filming the discussion around Lil Nas X coming out and how it affected his relationship with his family?
Zac Manuel: That’s a good question. I mean, I think at the heart of it, the question of coming out — or how to come out or when to come out or why to come out — was so essential to who he is as a person, but also how he could progress as an artist. It’s like, you can’t continue to make music or to grow as an artist — ge felt like he couldn’t do that unless he were to give other people this, like, to tell them who he was as a person, which is, ‘I’m a gay black man.’ That process was pretty essential and pretty vital to him even growing as an artist and as a person. So, we talked about that, and we just kind of talked about how that was his feeling behind it. But also, with his family, it’s like, you love them, he wanted them to know who he was, he knew that there might be some backlash, because they’re maybe more conservative than then he personally was. His father is, like, a pastor. So there kind of comes this different level of dealing with the religiosity of, or the dynamic of, being queer and in a religious space. I mean, we just knew we had to engage it. And we did engage it. And I think he was really forthcoming and honest about what that process was like.
Everybody knows he’s gay, right? Like, that’s such a big part of his persona, is like, I’m going to troll you, because everyone’s hating on gay people, but like, I’m going to be the most gay, I’m going to be the most flamboyant, I’m going to be the most out there. I’m going to pole dance on the devil, and like, I’m just gonna throw it all in your face. I guess like maybe a better answer to that question is, yes, it’s easy to kind of see the spectacle of it all. But at a certain point, the spectacle becomes a shield. And so it becomes important to kind of look beyond the spectacle to and ask the questions about how does this action of being honest about who you are to other people, how does it affect you personally? And how does it affect you within the circle of people that you grew up with, which is your family, your friends? Because that’s where it’s really going to matter.
MM: How much creative control did Lil Nas X have?
Carlos López Estrada: He was a part of the Creative Conversation from day one. And I think that’s what allowed this to feel so intimate, and so real and so close to him. But he, I think, was very smart about the fact that he wanted to keep a distance from the creative process of the actual documenting. So of course, like he was our partner through it and it’s a look into his life. So he was talking to Zac every other day. And we were very, very much in dialogue. But it’s not like he was sitting in the edit room with us. And it’s not like he was telling us, you can you can show this but don’t show that. I think he trusted us as filmmakers, which is obviously the best thing that an artist can do.
What he did do is push us to make it the most fun, the most weird, the most unique, the most emotional, that we can make it, and through his label that was that was sort of like the only guiding principle. It was just like, we want this to be different from a concert film. We don’t want this to be just cameras shooting songs. Like everything Nas does, we want it to feel a little weird and a little bit unique, and with lots and lots of thought behind it.That was really sort of like his involvement. We showed him the movie for the first time and we’re expecting hundreds of notes, and he got up in the middle of the screening and started dancing and singing and just having the time of his life. And that was really, I think, how we experienced our collaboration.
Main Image: Lil Nas X courtesy of HBO.