Demi Lovato is no stranger to, in her own words, “dancing with the devil.” She’s been a longtime open book, sharing her struggles with addiction, mental health issues, eating disorders and familial difficulties, walking the fine line between life and death all the way up to her near-fatal July 2018 overdose.
Now, the singer is opening up more than ever, sharing intimate details of her hospitalization and the months of strength since then in her YouTube Originals documentary series, Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil, premiering March 23. To tell a story as heart-wrenching and ultimately inspiring as hers, Lovato called on her friend and director Michael D. Ratner.
“I was humbled to be able to give her a platform to tell her story,” Ratner tells Billboard of the opportunity to work with Lovato on the four-part series, which first debuted at SXSW on Tuesday (March 16). “My responsibility is to give her the space to tell as much of her story and experience as she wants to tell. Ultimately, I found her opening up more and more as the process went on, and the trust was earned. It was in some of those later sit-downs where some of the heavier traumas were unveiled. I think that sometimes I would find those things out before we were rolling, and sometimes I think she actually made the decision to share that stuff because she did feel so comfortable while she was speaking and in the environment we put her in.
“In Demi’s story, her story — it’s all intrinsically tied,” he continues. “Many of the different moments in her life lead to other moments and it’s hard to tell her story completely without sharing all that we did. I think a lot of holes or misinformation is cleared up in this project because she decided to go there. She told me that she was pretty prepared to go deep in 2018 and break the record on a lot that happened there, but I think that she even surprised herself with how comfortable she felt with the process and the way the project was turning out that she wanted to use it as the ultimate catharsis. She wanted to tell the story of her trials and tribulations since that time in 2018, 2019 and all the way up to 2021.”
Ratner, who previously teamed up with YouTube Originals and Justin Bieber for the “Love Yourself” star’s Seasons and Next Chapter docuseries, continually stressed the importance of trust in sharing these vulnerable moments. “It’s just transparency from the get-go, and being really upfront about the goal of trying to share these artists’ truths, and being a really good listener and providing the safe space and platform for them to tell their story,” Ratner suggests as the reason why a number of high-profile artists turn to him to direct their documentaries. “I take pride in the fact that they do trust me with their most intimate moments and ultimately getting their perspective out into the world — and I think that comes through time and transparency and work ethic.
“I try to really study and understand, and put in the time to get to know these people so I can help ultimately share their story with the world,” he adds.
The director certainly accomplished his goal with Lovato, who revealed everything from her brief engagement to Max Ehrich in 2020 and embracing her queer identity, to the sexual abuse she claims she suffered as she was overdosing, and the medical issues she still struggles with as a result of the OD. “I was left with brain damage and I still deal with the effects of that today,” she says at one point in the doc. “I don’t drive a car because of blind spots in my vision. … I had a lot of trouble reading.”
And while seeing someone as outwardly confident as Lovato be so unarmed can be heartbreaking, that’s what makes this docuseries so much more compelling. “My job also, from what I know from [Demi] and what she wanted to get out of this, was not just to make a softball documentary and not just make it a puff piece, but to really ask the hard questions,” Ratner says. “It was her prerogative to share as much of it as she wanted, but that was her goal and her decision and I was there to listen and give her a safe space to talk about that information.”
That “safe space” allowed Lovato to shed the often toxic expectation to be a “role model,” which adds an unnatural amount of pressure to a 28-year-old who has been in the spotlight since she was a teenager — and neglects the more realistic aspects of the human experience.
“Demi and I talked a lot about ‘role model’ and being the poster child for things,” Ratner explains. “I think what we have effectively done here versus previous times in her life — when she made [2017’s] Simply Complicated, she was the poster child for sobriety. And I think that here, while many people are going to talk about her bravery and how many people she’s helping as a result of this documentary and saying that it’s OK to not be OK and you’re not defined by your lowest moments, she’s not saying, ‘I’m the poster child’ for anything. She’s saying, ‘I’m a wildly flawed human being, as we all are. Here is my unique journey and my struggles, and it’s OK for you to talk about your unique journey and struggles.’
“She’s not necessarily claiming to be anything,” he adds. “So nobody after this can be like, ‘Wait, you said you were XYZ!’ She’s not setting herself up for failure. She’s saying, ‘Here I am in my very human capacity’ and hoping that her story helps other people.”
The down-to-earth and honest nature of the series, to Ratner, is what sets it apart from musician-focused films of the past. “When talking about the documentary, people say, ‘I’ve never seen a music documentary like this,’ and I say, ‘That’s right, because it isn’t a music documentary.’ This is a human documentary about a musician and about a musician who’s also a multi-hyphenate and a person,” Ratner shares.
Without giving too much away before more of the public can view it, Ratner reveals that the most moving part of Dancing With the Devil is “the way history has repeated itself, and the way she shares how history repeated itself in her life and in episodes three and four. She talks about some of the repeated trauma that she’s been through and the time and reflection has led her to really have more clarity on how these things impacted her. I think that was a pretty big revelation.”
With a deep breath, Ratner adds, “I direct and produce lots of different types of shows and films — I can juggle a lot at once, but I can say that this project specifically was very hard to think about anything other than Demi and this project because of how heavy it was. Normally after a day on set, I can go meet up for a work dinner or something, but my mind was racing on whatever happened that day because of how heavy it was and it was pretty intense.”
As for why more and more artists are choosing to share their lives through documentaries, Ratner believes it’s all about connection. “It’s very different than being on tour or [releasing an album]. This is a way to really go in and allow the people who think they know you to get to know you a little bit better,” he shares.
Ratner also executive produced the documentary. Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil was produced by Ratner’s OBB Pictures and SB Projects. Scott Ratner, Kfir Goldberg and Miranda Sherman also serve as executive producers for OBB Pictures. Scooter Braun, Allison Kaye and Scott Manson executive produce for SB Projects. Co-executive producers on the project are Andy Mininger and Arlen Konopaki for OBB Pictures, Jen McDaniels, Scott Marcus and James Shin for SB Projects, and Hannah Lux Davis. Marc Ambrose serves as producer.