Review: ‘Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil,’ starring Demi Lovato

March 17, 2021

by Carla Hay

Demi Lovato in “Demi Lovato: Dancing with the Devil” (Photo courtesy of OBB Media)

“Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil”

Directed by Michael D. Ratner

Culture Representation: The four-part docuseries “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” features a racially diverse group of people (Latino, white and African American) of mostly people in the entertainment industry, including Demi Lovato, discussing her life and career, particularly from 2018 to 2020.

Culture Clash: Lovato, who is a recovering drug addict, relapsed and had a near-fatal overdose in 2018, and she says that she no longer believes that complete drug abstinence is the best method of recovery for her.

Culture Audience: “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in stories about how celebrities cope with addiction and trauma.

Demi Lovato in “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” (Photo courtesy of YouTube Originals)

Singer/actress Demi Lovato is well-known for revealing a lot of painful and unflattering aspects of her life, so it should come as no surprise that her four-part YouTube docuseries “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” has a confessional tone to it. The docuseries had its world premiere at the 2021 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival. Among other things, Lovato goes into details about what she experienced before and after her near-fatal drug overdose at her Los Angeles home in July 2018. (She has since moved from that house because of the bad memories.) She also reveals publicly for the first time that she’s a rape survivor and how the COVID-19 pandemic quarantine led to her very quick and ultimately failed engagement to actor Max Ehrich.

Directed by Michael D. Ratner, “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” has much more disturbing revelations than Lovato’s 2017 YouTube documentary film “Demi Lovato: Simply Complicated.” There’s a trigger warning at the beginning of “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” because it contains graphic talk of sexual assault, her drug use and eating disorders. She goes into details about what happened before and after her overdose of heroin laced with Fentanyl.

Lovato says that the drug dealer who supplied the drugs also sexually assaulted her and left her for dead. She also reveals that when she was 15, she lost her virginity by being raped by someone she worked with in her Disney Channel days. Lovato doesn’t name either of her alleged rapists, but she says that when she reported her underage rape to adults, nothing happened to her alleged rapist. And she claims that she’s managing her addiction problems by drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana. That’s not a good sign that she’s on the road to a healthy recovery.

It’s a big contrast to “Demi Lovato: Simply Complicated,” where her most personal revelation was that she’s openly living her life as a member of the LGTBQ community. (The movie had scenes of her discussing her attempts to find love on online dating sites.) Lovato refuses to label her sexuality, and she will only describe herself as “queer” or “not straight.” “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” shows that although Lovato claims to be in a much better emotional place than she was in 2018, she’s still struggling with the idea that her recovery from addiction means that she has to completely abstain from drugs and alcohol.

She admits to drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana “in moderation,” even though she’s said in many interviews that she’s an alcoholic and drug addict. Although she talks a lot about the drugs that she’s used and/or been addicted to over the years, in “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” she leaves out any mention of her alcoholism. And that omission is probably because she keeps repeating in the documentary that she’s tired of other people controlling her life and telling her what she can and cannot put in her body.

Ever since former Disney Channel star Lovato first went to rehab in 2010, at the age 18, she has publicly talked about her recovery from a variety of issues, including drug addiction, alcoholism, eating disorders (anorexia and bulimia), self-harming (cutting) and bipolar disorder. In “Demi Lovato: Simply Complicated,” she repeated the claim that she was clean and sober since 2012. And in 2018, during her “Tell Me You Love Me” tour, she was filming another documentary about herself, until her drug overdose resulted in shutting down production of that untitled documentary, which was permanently shelved.

“Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” has some clips from that never-seen-before 2018 documentary that shows a seemingly happy Lovato on tour. But as is often the case with entertainers who are drug addicts, they are very skilled at hiding dark sides of their lives. In “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil,” Lovato says of her shelved 2018 biographical film: “In that documentary, I was allowing the cameras to see the tip of the iceberg.”

“Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” opens with Lovato backstage during that 2018 tour, in footage that was taken one month before her overdose. She’s on the phone with her mother, Dianna De La Garza. Her mother gushes, “Demi, that was the best show you’ve ever done! It’s only going to get better from here.” Lovato gives a small smile but there’s some sadness in her eyes.

There’s also a clip from that a concert earlier on that 2018 tour, with the footage showing Demi being congratulated on stage by opening acts DJ Khaled and Kehlani for her sixth “sober birthday,” to celebrate her being clean and sober for the past six years. On the surface, Lovato looked healthy and happy. But in “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil,” she now confesses that she relapsed later that night.

Lovato says, “I picked up a bottle of red wine that night and it wasn’t even 30 minutes before I called someone that had drugs on them … I’m surprised that I didn’t OD that night. I ended up at a party and ran into my old drug dealer from six years before. That night I did drugs I had never done before.”

According to Lovato, she did a dangerous mix of methamphetamine, Ecstasy, alcohol and OxyContin. “That alone should’ve killed me,” Lovato adds. She also confesses that during this relapse that lasted for months, she tried crack cocaine and heroin for the first time.

The first time she went to rehab in 2010, Lovato says that she was addicted to cocaine and Xanax. Years later, when she turned to crack cocaine and heroin (which she usually smoked, not injected), Lovato says in the documentary that she was trying to get the same “upper/downer” combination feeling that she had with cocaine and Xanax. “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” includes a photo identified as Lovato on crack for the first time and a photo of her while she was smoking heroin.

Lovato says she quickly became addicted to crack and heroin, but she was able to hide these addictions from most of the people who were close to her. Her immediate family members are interviewed in the documentary: mother Dianna De La Garza; stepfather Eddie De La Garza; older sister Dallas Lovato; and younger half-sister Madison De LaGarza. All of them say some variation of how Lovato is very good at keeping secrets and pretending that everything is just fine. “There’s a lot that the public don’t know,” says her stepfather Eddie, who is interviewed while sitting on a couch with his wife Dianna.

Demi’s parents got divorced when she was 2 years old. For years, she has been open about how her biological father Patrick Lovato struggled with mental illness (bipolar disorder, schizophrenia) and drug addiction, and their relationship was fractured for a very long time. Patrick died of cancer in 2013.

In “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil,” she talks about how she still feels trauma over her troubled relationship with her father, whom she says abused her mother Dianna. Demi also says that she feels terrible about how her father died alone. His body, which wasn’t discovered for several days, was so decomposed that there couldn’t be an open casket at his funeral. Demi says that her biggest fear was that he would die alone, and she says she’s still haunted by guilt over it.

As for what led to her relapse and overdose in 2018, Demi comments: “Anytime you suppress a part of yourself, it’s going to overflow. Ultimately, that’s what happened to me in a lot of areas of my life. And it led to my overdose, for sure.” She adds later in the documentary: “I was miserable. I snapped.”

In addition to the issues of abandonment that she had with her father, Demi says she believes that the beauty pageants she entered as a child also had a negative effect on her: “My self-esteem was completely damaged by those beauty pageants.” Demi says that her eating disorders began as a direct result of the pressure she felt to be thin and pretty for the pageants.

Her mother Dianna says in the documentary about Demi’s childhood traumas: “I didn’t know that she needed to work with a professional to work through some of that.” In a separate interview, Demi says, “I crossed the line in the world of addiction. It’s interesting that it took a quarantine to work on this trauma stuff I’ve never really taken the time to dig deep and do the work on.”

To her credit, Demi doesn’t sugarcoat the very real and permanent health damage that her overdose caused: “I had three strokes. I had a heart attack. I suffered brain damage from the strokes. I can’t drive anymore. I have blind spots in my vision. When I pour a glass of water, I’ll totally miss the cup because I can’t see it anymore. I’ve also had pneumonia because I asphyxiated and multiple organ failure.”

What happened the night of the overdose has been reported in many media outlets, but the story in this documentary is told by Demi and some other people who were with her in the 24-hour period before and after her overdose. On the evening of July 23, 2018, Demi had been celebrating the birthday of Dani Vitale, who was Demi’s choreographer/creative director at the time.

Demi, Vitale and some other friends went out to nightclubs before heading back to Demi’s house. (The documentary includes phone footage of Vitale and Demi doing a choreographed dance routine on the rooftop.) Vitale, who is interviewed in the documentary, says that she didn’t know that Demi had been using drugs at that time.

That night, Demi begged Vitale to stay overnight at the house, but Vitale declined because she had to go home and feed her dogs and had to get up early the next morning. However, Vitale says as she was driving away from the house with a friend, she told the friend that she had a strange feeling that something wasn’t right. Ultimately, Vitale says that she didn’t stay because of her other obligations and she didn’t want to treat Demi like a child who needed a babysitter.

Demi says that when she was alone in the house, she called her drug dealer and spent the rest of the night doing drugs with him. The documentary includes blurry video surveillance footage of him leaving her house that morning, a few hours before Demi was found unconscious and the ambulance was called. Police later decided not to arrest him for his involvement in this overdose.

Jordan Jackson, a woman who was Demi’s assistant at the time, was the one who found Demi naked, unconscious and surrounded by vomit in Demi’s bed the next morning on July 24, 2018. “There was one point where she turned blue. Her whole body turned blue. I was like, ‘She’s dead for sure,'” Jackson says in the documentary. “It was the craziest thing I had ever seen.”

When Demi woke up at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, she was legally blind for a short period of time. She didn’t even recognize her younger sister Madison, who chokes up with emotion in the documentary when she remembers that moment: “She looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘Who is that?’ That’s something you never want to hear your sister say.”

Cedars-Sinai neurologist Dr. Shouri Lahiri, who sits next to Demi while he’s interviewed in the documentary, remembers that her oxygen levels were “dangerously low and trending down.” Demi also was put on dialysis to clean her blood, and the tubing had to be stuck through her neck. “It was like a horror movie,” as Dianna De La Garza describes it.

Demi is seated next to Dr. Lahiri when he talks about her hospital treatment. He says he didn’t know she why she was famous until about a week after he became her doctor, when he looked her up on the Internet. In the documentary, Dr. Lahiri mentions that he avoided looking up the information earlier because he didn’t want Demi’s celebrity status to affect his medical decisions about her. It’s kind of hard to believe that while she was in the hospital, he didn’t know for the first several days why she was famous, considering all the media coverage about her overdose.

Demi’s stepfather Eddie De La Garza gives a lot of praise to the hospital doctors who helped Demi with her recovery. But no one (not even Demi) is seen or heard in the documentary explicitly thanking Jackson, the person who found Demi and made the crucially important decision to call 911. Jackson admits in her documentary interview that she was afraid that calling 911 would bring a lot of negative publicity for Demi, but Jackson did the right thing and called anyway. Part of the 911 call is played in the documentary, and Jackson is heard asking the 911 operator if the ambulance could not turn on any sirens when it arrived at the house. However, the operator said that there would be ambulance sirens, and 911 operators have no control over that.

Demi says in the documentary, “I’m really lucky to be alive. My doctors said that I had five to 10 minutes [to live before I was found]. Had my assistant not come in, I wouldn’t be here today.” It would’ve been nice for Demi to directly and publicly thank Jackson in the documentary. If Demi did thank her while filming this documentary, it didn’t make it into the movie. And based on the “bare it all” tone of this film, a moment like that wouldn’t be edited out of the film if this thank you really happened while filming.

The documentary also shows that Vitale’s career and reputation were damaged by this overdose, because she was wrongfully blamed for it and wrongfully identified as being a drug buddy of Demi’s. Vitale says she doesn’t do drugs, but she was bullied and harassed by many of Demi’s fans who believed that Vitale was the one who supplied the drugs that Demi took that night. Vitale lost clients because of the overdose scandal. Demi says that her fans who harassed Vitale went too far.

In the documentary, while Vitale is getting her hair and makeup done for the interview, Demi is shown going into the room, hugging Vitale, and telling her that she’s sorry that she didn’t come forward sooner to clear Vitale’s name, but she was still in recovery at the time. Demi also says that she hopes that the documentary will help Vitale set the record straight that Vitale had nothing to do with Demi’s overdose. They seem to be friendly with each other, but it’s clear that Vitale doesn’t want to risk going through this experience with Demi again.

During her interview, Vitale tears up with emotion when she talks about the fallout from Demi’s overdose: “It was the hardest thing I ever had to deal with in my life. I just wanted [Demi] to live … I lost all my teaching jobs. No one wanted to bring their kid to an apparent heroin dealer teacher. I lost all the artists I was working with. No one wanted to deal with the drama … I had to rethink my whole future, all because of someone else’s decision.”

After recovering from her overdose, Demi says she decided she no longer wanted to have a team of people controlling what she ate or people checking up on her as if she would relapse at any moment. As an example, she says that for her birthdays, her previous management team would only allow her to have watermelon cake. After she fired that management team, Demi says one of the ways she celebrated her freedom from other people telling her what to eat was by having three cakes on her birthday.

After getting rid of her previous management, Demi asked Scooter Braun (who’s most famous for being Justin Bieber’s manager) to become her personal manager. Braun, who is an executive producer of “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil,” is interviewed in the documentary and says that he was skeptical about representing Demi until he met her in person and she won him over. During contract negotiations, Demi says she relapsed and was truthful about it to Braun. Demi says she was sure that after this confession, Braun wouldn’t want to represent her.

But the opposite happened. Braun says that rather than distancing himself from Demi because of the relapse, he wanted to help her. He says his reaction was, “As long as you tell me the truth, we’ll work through it.” Braun also says, “She didn’t need a manager. She needed a friend.”

Demi didn’t get rid of everyone on her business team after the overdose. She gives a lot of credit to her longtime business manager Glenn Nordlinger and head of security/chief of staff Max Lea for helping her through tough times. Nordlinger and Lea are both interviewed in the documentary. Nordlinger says it was his idea to get Demi checked into the Cirque Lodge addiction treatment center in Orem, Utah, for her post-overdose rehab. Demi is seated next to Lea and Nordlinger during some of her interviews, and she often keeps her head lowered, as if she’s still ashamed of what they know about her.

Two other people who’ve remained in Demi’s inner circle and are interviewed in the documentary are Sirah Mitchell (a hip-hop artist) and Matthew Scott Montgomery (an actor), who are each described in the documentary as Demi’s “best friend.” Mitchell is also described as Demi’s “former sober coach.” Mitchell and Montgomery, who were not with Demi on the night that she overdosed, profess unwavering loyalty to Demi. They both say that they knew that Demi was doing heroin and other drugs in the weeks leading up to the overdose, but they say that Demi ignored their concerns and there was nothing they could do about it.

Mitchell and Montgomery seem to be among Demi’s biggest cheerleaders, but they also come across as enablers who will say what she wants to hear so she won’t cut them out of her life. For example, Mitchell and Montgomery make vague excuses for why they’re going along with Demi’s plan to drink alcohol and smoke marijuana as part of her “recovery” from alcoholism and drug addiction. By now, these friends should know that when drug addicts/alcoholics think they can handle drugs and alcohol, that’s still being in the sickness of denial.

As for Demi’s family members, they all say that based on their experiences with Demi, they know that an addict can only truly recover when the addict is willing to stop what’s causing their addiction of their own free will, not because other people are pressuring them to do it. Demi says that the first time she went to rehab, she was forced to go because she was told that she wouldn’t be able to see her sister Madison again if Demi didn’t get rehab treatment. In the documentary, Demi notes the “full circle” irony that after she woke up from her overdose, she literally couldn’t see Madison because of Demi’s temporary blindness.

Demi’s case manager Charles Cook is the one of the few people interviewed in the movie to warn viewers that Demi’s way of handling her addiction is not going to work for everyone. He chooses his words carefully, so as not to offend her, but it’s pretty obvious that he’s conflicted in endorsing Demi’s decision to continue to drink alcohol and use marijuana. Cook and Demi both say that addiction recovery doesn’t have a “one size fits all” solution, and Demi is trying to figure out what works best for her.

The documentary includes interviews with some celebrities who know Demi and have worked with her, including recovering addict/alcoholic Elton John. He is blunt when he comments on addicts/alcoholics who think they can still use their addiction substances as part of their recovery: “Moderation doesn’t work.” However, he praises Demi by saying: “She’s human and she’s adorable and she’s brave.”

Christina Aguilera and Will Ferrell also say good things about Demi. Aguilera says, “She’s just no bullshit when it comes to her spirit and her energy and her laughter.” Lovato and Aguilera teamed up for the duet “Fall in Line,” which was on Aguilera’s 2018 album “Liberation.” The song was also released as a single.

Ferrell says he was inspired to put Demi in his 2020 Netflix comedy movie “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” after seeing her emotionally perform “Anyone” at the 2020 Grammy Awards. The Grammy show was her first high-profile performance after her overdose, and she followed it up with another critically acclaimed performance at Super Bowl LIV, where she sang a powerful rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Clips of both performances are in the movie, as well as snippets of her performing on tour in 2018 and in the recording studio. Demi says that she wrote and recorded “Sober” while she was in the throes of addiction to crack and heroin. And she mentions that her song “Dancing With the Devil” is one of the rawest, soul-baring songs she’s ever written about her addiction. Braun says, “In the studio, Demi is in her happy place.”

Demi describes her brief engagement to Ehrich in 2020 as part of their whirlwind and unconventional romance. Most of their courtship happened when they moved in with her mother and stepfather to quarantine with them during the coronavirus pandemic. Demi and Ehrich dated for just six months before calling it quits. After the breakup, he went on social media and gave interviews saying that he was blindsided and treated unfairly by Demi.

In the documentary, Demi says that she and Ehrich probably wouldn’t have gotten engaged so quickly if they hadn’t quarantined together. And although she doesn’t divulge the full details of their breakup, Demi reiterates what she’s already said publicly: She says she found out that Ehrich didn’t have the right intentions in their relationship. The documentary has selfie video footage of a forlorn-looking Demi after the breakup, fretting to the camera that she won’t find anyone to love her.

Demi has this to say about her love life at the time she filmed this documentary: “I feel like I’m too queer in my life to marry a man right now.” She describes her outlook: “Life is fluid, and I’m fluid, and that’s all I know.”

In addition to dealing with her physical health problems as a result of the overdose, Demi says she has the psychological trauma of being sexually assaulted. She has this to say about the sexual violation from her drug dealer: “When they found me, I was naked, blue. I was literally left for dead after he took advantage of me. I was literally discarded and abandoned.”

“When I woke up in the hospital, they asked if I had consensual sex,” Demi says in one of her documentary interviews. “There was one flash that I had of him on top of me. I saw the flash, and I said, ‘Yes’ [in answer to the question if the sex was consensual]. It wasn’t until a month after my overdose that I realized, ‘Hey, you weren’t in any state of mind to make a consensual decision.’ That kind of trauma doesn’t go away overnight, and it doesn’t go away in the first few months of rehab either.”

Demi reveals that instead of staying away from the drug dealer that she says raped her, she actually contacted him again when she relapsed after her overdose. And she says that when they had sex again, she wanted to be the one in control. Instead, Demi says this “revenge sex” made her feel worse.

And she also says it was history repeating itself because something similar happened with the person she says raped her when she was 15: “When I was a teenager, I was in a very similar situation. I lost my virginity in rape. I called that person back a month later and tried to make it right by being in control. All it did was make me feel worse.”

In the documentary, Demi doesn’t name her alleged rapists, but the drug dealer who admitted he was the one who supplied the drugs on the night of the overdose already gave tabloid interviews after he found out that he wouldn’t be arrested for supplying her the drugs. His name is already out there in the public. And in at least one of his interviews, he claimed that Demi was his sex partner in a “friends with benefits” situation.

As for the guy whom Demi says raped her when she was 15, she drops some big hints about who he is. “I was part of that Disney crowd that publicly said they were waiting until marriage.” She says in the documentary that this virginity image was a lie for her and her alleged rapist, which obviously implies that he was part of that “Disney crowd” too.

Commenting on how she lost her virginity, Demi says: “I didn’t have the romantic first time. That was not it for me. That sucked. Then I had to see this person all the time so I stopped eating and coped in other ways.”

Then she takes a breath and says, “Fuck it. I’m gonna say it.” She says that her #MeToo moment came when she reported the rape to adults (whom she does not name in the documentary), but her alleged rapist “never got in trouble for it. They never got taken out of the movie they were in. I always kept it quiet because I’ve always had something to say. I don’t know, I’m tired of opening my mouth. Here’s the tea.”

Just like many people with #MeToo stories, Demi says she’s going public with her truth to help give other people the courage to do the same. “I’m coming forward with what happened to me because everyone it happens to should absolutely speak their voice.” She also says, “At the end of the day, I’m responsible for my life choices and only hold myself accountable. And the last two years have been about me doing the work to identify and confront those traumas, so I can be my best self and truly be happy.”

The problem with these types of “confessions of a famous addict” is that they usually have the celebrity confessing that in the past, they put on a fake front of being happy and/or sober in public, but they were really miserable and/or relapsing in private. Then they usually end the documentary by saying they’re doing much better now. But it can be hard for people to believe that, when the celebrity has already admitted that they’re skilled at pretending that their life is better than it really is.

Demi says in the “Dancing With the Devil” documentary that when she made the “Simply Complicated” documentary, she was really miserable and pretended at the time that she happy. Is there eventually going to be another “confession” from Demi where she will say that she was lying in this “Dancing With the Devil” documentary too? It’s a vicious cycle where people aren’t going to know what to believe.

Another problem that people tend to have with these celebrity “tell-alls” is they usually come out at around the same time that the celebrity has a new project to promote. And it makes people wonder how much of this pain is being used to market something that the celebrity wants to sell. Sure enough, the documentary includes studio footage and video clips to promote Demi’s seventh studio album “Dancing with the Devil … The Art of Starting Over,” which is due out on April 2, 2021, the same week as when this docuseries’ last episode is released on YouTube.

Most addicts and alcoholics don’t get to profit from selling their stories. And there’s a lot of denial going on in the documentary when Demi, who spent years telling the world that she’s an alcoholic, now says she can handle drinking alcohol in moderation. Did she not learn anything in rehab?

Although there are website addresses and hotline phone numbers listed in the documentary as resources for people who want to get more information on how to get help for addiction or surviving sexual trauma, the mixed messages that Demi gives in her “Dancing With the Devil” documentary can actually confuse people. She does briefly acknowledge that she’s luckier than most addicts, because she can afford top-notch rehab treatment and a team of people who can get her whatever she asks for because she’s paying them to do it. But that acknowledgement rings hollow because she’s basically saying, “I know I can afford to go to the highest-priced rehab centers in the world, but I’m going to indulge in my addictive substances anyway, just because I feel like it.”

However, people who are not gullible fans can see the documentary for what it is: It shows the difficulty of overcoming addiction and how celebrities are surrounded by “yes” people who will say what the celebrity wants to hear so that they can stay in the celebrity’s inner circle. If there’s any meaningful takeaway from “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” it’s that if celebrities want to tell the world their truth, they should summon the courage to have people in their lives who will tell them the truth. And when it comes to addiction to alcohol and drugs, they can start with the basic fundamentals of rehab, which is that an alcoholic/drug addict isn’t doing enough real work to get clean and sober if that alcoholic/drug addict is still drinking and drugging.

YouTube Originals will premiere “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” on Demi Lovato’s YouTube channel on March 23, 2021.

2021 South by Southwest: What to expect at this year’s SXSW event

February 12, 2021

by Carla Hay

For the first time, South by Southwest (SXSW) Conference & Festivals will be held online for the 2021 edition of the event, which takes place March 16 to March 20, and has been dubbed SXSW Online. After being cancelled in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, SXSW is following safety protocols to offer a virtual experience for SXSW attendees in 2021. SXSW is arguably the best-known event in the U.S. that combines music, film, interactive and convergence programming.

Here are some of the anticipated highlights of the festival:

Keynote and Featured Speakers

Willie Nelson (Photo courtesy of ABC/Image Group LA)

The lineup of SXSW keynote speakers includes:

  • Grammy-winning artist Willie Nelson
  • Politician, activist and author Stacey Abrams in conversation with author N.K. Jemisin

Featured speakers include:

  • Author James Altucher
  • Favor president/CEO and H-E-B Chief digital officer Jag Bath in conversation with Inc editor-at-large Tom Foster
  • Talk show host/comedian Samantha Bee
  • Oregon congressman and Congressional Cannabis Caucus founder Earl Blumenauer with Politico federal cannabis policy reporter Natalie Fertig
  • Business mogul and Virgin Airlines founder Sir Richard Branson
  • Oscar-nominated film composer Nicholas Britell
  • Hip-hop artist Dave Burd (aka Lil Dicky)
  • Filmmaker Erin Lee Carr
  • Electronic dance music duo The Chainsmokers
  • Singer Chiquis
  • Entrepreneur Mark Cuban
  • Interdisciplinary artist Torkwase Dyson
  • Relativity Space co-founder/COTim Ellis
  • Dance choreographer Laurieann Gibson
  • Author/psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb
  • Schwab executive vice president and chief digital officer Neesha Hathi
  • Singer/songwriter Imogen Heap
  • Oscar-wining filmmaker Barry Jenkins
  • Affectiva co-founder/CEO Dr. Rana el Kaliouby
  • Oscar-nominated actress Taraji P. Henson in conversation with Self magazine editor-in-chief Carolyn Kylstra
  • Twilio co-founder/CEO Jeff Lawson
  • Computer scientist Kai-Fu Lee
  • Grammy-winning rapper and “NCIS: Los Angeles” actor LL Cool J
  • Oscar-winning actor Matthew McConaughey in conversation with Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber
  • International yoga teacher, actress, writer and entrepreneur Adriene Mishler
  • Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian
  • Actor, filmmaker, author, and Olympic athlete Alexi Pappas
  • Sony Music Publishing chairman/CEO Jon Platt in conversation with Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter Carole King
  • Emmy-winning producer, Grammy-winning artist and actress Queen Latifah
  • Amazon Studios chief Jennifer Salke
  • NFL football player Laurent Duvernay-Tardif
  • NFL football player Sebastian Tomich
  • NBA basketball star Chris Webber
  • Grammy-winning artist Wyclef Jean

Featured Sessions

Descriptions courtesy of SXSW:

  • Alexi Pappas & Bill Hader on Being a Bravey – A conversation with Olympian, actress, and author of the bestselling book Bravey, Alexi Pappas, in conversation with Emmy award-winning actor, filmmaker and creator/star of “Barry,” Bill Hader. Pappas and Hader will discuss their evolving relationship with mental health in their creative, professional, and personal lives, and on the lessons they’ve learned from mentors along the way.
  • Are We the Smartest Kids on the Block? – A conversation with Harvard University Professor of Science Avi Loeb, and New Scientist reporter Leah Crane about the search for extraterrestrial life, one of the most exciting frontiers in astronomy. With the recent discoveries on the cloud deck of Venus and studies of the weird interstellar object `Oumuamua’, find out how the search for unusual electromagnetic flashes, industrial pollution of planetary atmospheres, artificial light or heat, artificial space debris or something completely unexpected holds the promise of advancing and maturing both science and society.
  • Beyond the Gender Binary – With increasing recognition of the fluidity of gender, the time has come for a 21st century approach to gender justice. Dividing billions of people into one of two categories “man or woman” is not natural, it is political. Gender diversity is an integral part of our existence. It always has been, and it always will be. The gender binary – the idea that there are only two separate and opposite genders – was built to create conflict and division, not foster creativity and humanity. In this conversation ALOK and Demi Lovato will speak about the status of trans rights in the United States and the power of creative self-expression in the face of gender norms.
  • Bruce Mau: Designing for the Cluster – Bruce Mau applies his MC24 design principles and his new life-centered approach to confronting the simultaneous cluster cascade of crisis that he calls “The Cluster: Pandemics – Racial and Social Justice – Climate – Food Insecurity – Governance.” In this conversation with philosopher and writer Sanford Kwinter, Mau will demonstrate that all of these global challenges are interrelated and that they have their origin in a fundamental crisis of empathy.
  • Building Equity In Startup Communities – A discussion about scaling equity throughout the technology, startup, and venture ecosystem to ensure a path to shared prosperity for Black, Latinx, and Indigenous People of Color in the fourth industrial revolution and beyond. Foundry Group and Techstars co-founder Brad Feld, and 100 Black Angels & Allies Fund and Opportunity Hub co-founder Rodney Sampson will discuss their strategies for operationalizing diversity, equity and inclusion in the startup ecosystem, moderated by Business Insider reporter Dominic-Madori Davis.
  • Can 5G Transform the Live Music Experience? – In the last year we have felt the absence of live music. Artists have stepped up and gotten creative to reach fans virtually with some amazing results – but it can’t replace the impact of live performances. As we look forward to the return of live music, artists have a new platform to help deliver innovative experiences – 5G. The next generation of cellular delivers capabilities that can take the live experience to new levels of immersion and unlock new opportunities for artist creativity. Join Cristiano Amon, President and CEO-elect of wireless leader Qualcomm, and Grammy-nominated DJ Steve Aoki and hear from two visionaries about the future of the live experience in a 5G world.
  • The Chainsmokers on launching MANTIS VC – Grammy Award-winning and Billboard Chart topping artist/producer duo, The Chainsmokers, are a dominating musical force with a diverse repertoire of songs that have led them to become one of world’s biggest recording artists. Alex Pall and Drew Taggart have expanded The Chainsmokers’ empire into film and television, tequila, philanthropy, and most recently their venture capital firm Mantis. Hear their story on how the duo have evolved their music career into so much more with Andreessen Horowitz Managing Partner Chris Lyons.
  • A Conversation with Desus Nice and The Kid Mero – A conversation with multi-talented comedians, authors of the New York Times bestseller “God-Level Knowledge Darts: Life Lessons from the Bronx,” co-hosts of Showtime’s first late-night talk show “Desus & Mero” and the long-running Bodega Boys podcast, Desus Nice and The Kid Mero.
  • A Conversation with Noah Hawley and Andrew Bird – Set in Kansas City 1950, Fargo’s fourth installment follows two crime syndicates jockeying to control an alternate economy of exploitation and graft while fighting for a piece of the American dream. Join Noah Hawley (creator / executive producer / director / writer) and Grammy Award-nominated musician Andrew Bird for a not-to-be-missed conversation about how a concert in Austin lead to Bird’s acting debut in “Fargo.” Moderated by Whitney Friedlander. All four installments of the critically acclaimed limited series are currently available to stream on FX on Hulu.
  • A Conversation with the Russo Brothers and Elizabeth Banks – A fireside chat between visionary directors/producers Anthony and Joe Russo (“Welcome to Collinwood,” “Arrested Development,” “Avengers: Endgame,” “Relic,” “Mosul” and “Cherry”) and acclaimed actress, director, writer, and producer Elizabeth Banks (“Charlie’s Angels,” “The Hunger Games” and “Shrill”). Banks will talk to the Russo Brothers about their new film “Cherry,” as well as the work they are doing with their company, AGBO. “Cherry” stars Tom Holland and is based on the critically acclaimed debut novel by Nico Walker. It will be released in theaters in February and on Apple TV+ in March.
  • COVID-19: The New Reality – Dr. Michael Osterholm, joined by health economist Jane Sarasohn-Kahn, will speak to the SXSW community about what is next in the fight against COVID-19. From the immediate concerns around new variants to the “collateral damage” we face from this pandemic, Dr. Osterholm and Ms. Sarasohn-Kahn will share insights to help navigate public health in 2021 and beyond.
  • Evolving the Gaming Industry with CouRage & Loaded – Gaming is taking off and bringing new opportunities for creators, brands and entertainment companies. Loaded, the leading management company for some of the world’s biggest professional gamers will host a special Q&A with leading content creator CouRage to examine the state of the today’s gaming industry and how the creator community has evolved the business for the better. The talk with Loaded VP of Talent Bridget Davidson will highlight key learning from CouRage’s successful career, as well as spotlight how brands and other non-endemic companies can work with creators to capture both eyeballs and engagement.
  • Forging a New Social Contract for Big Tech – Beyond privacy, revised liability laws can hold companies accountable for what they disseminate online. Antitrust actions could check the flow of wealth to the small number of companies that control platforms, aggregators, and algorithms. A lightweight horizontal regulation could add a safety layer to the high-risk applications of artificial intelligence. This discussion features U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar; Denmark tech ambassador Anne Marie Engtoft Larsen; Executive Vice-President of the European Commission and Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager; and President & Co-founder Center for Humane Technology Tristan Harris. The session will focus on the role for technology companies in the 21st Century and what a new “social contract” could look like for Big Tech – in both Europe and the United States.
  • Gene Editing: The Biotech Revolution of our Times – Bestselling author Walter Isaacson has established himself as the biographer of creativity, innovation, and genius. He wrote about Einstein, a genius of the revolution in physics, and Steve Jobs, a genius of the revolution in digital technology. Though the past half-century has been a digital age, based on the microchip, computer, and internet, Isaacson argues we are now on the cusp of a third revolution in science—a revolution in biochemistry that is capable of curing diseases, fending off viruses, and improving the human species. With the invention of CRISPR, we can edit our DNA. CRISPR has been used in China to create “designer babies” that are immune from the AIDS virus and in the U.S. to cure patients of sickle cell anemia. With the life-science revolution, children who study digital coding will be joined by those who study the code of life — and all the moral dilemmas this brings. Isaacson will be joined in conversation with award-winning journalist, New York Times bestselling author, and a co-founder of Stand Up to Cancer Katie Couric.
  • Indigenous Peoples Hold the Key to Saving Earth – For centuries, Indigenous communities have served as guardians of the environment, protecting nature, respecting flora and fauna, and using traditional knowledge and wisdom passed down over generations. They safeguard 80% of biodiversity left in the world, which is key to turning around the climate crisis, as biodiverse areas are major carbon sinks. In this panel, Nemonte Nenquimo, a leader from the Waorani community in Ecuador and founding member of Indigenous-led nonprofit organization Ceibo Alliance and Amazon Frontlines speaks with Julia Jackson, Founder of Grounded.org, to discuss why climate philanthropy must be reimagined to protect the future of our planet, by directing resources to indigenous communities who are at the frontlines of our climate emergency.
  • Immersive Retail: Connected Shopping in a New Era – A conversation about the acceleration in changes to the retail environment and what major initiatives the retail industry is pursuing to enable the widespread proliferation of AR/VR and 3D content for e-commerce and retail with TechTalk/Studio president and co-founder Kevin O’Malley, IBM Global Business Strategy Partner Silke Meixner, and Unity Head of Industry Verticals, Operate Solutions, Tony Parisi.
  • Late Night Girls Club: Samantha Bee & Amber Ruffin – Samantha Bee (host and executive producer of the WGA nominated, Emmy Award-winning show Full Frontal with Samantha Bee) in conversation with Amber Ruffin (writer, executive producer and host of WGA Award-nominated series The Amber Ruffin Show). The two will discuss the trials and tribulations of covering politics in today’s unpredictable climate from a unique, comedic point of view. As the longest running correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Bee eventually went out on her own in 2016 with Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. The show continues to use political satire to entertain, educate, and empower viewers while keeping the government in check. Ruffin is also an Emmy and WGA Award-nominated writer and performer for Late Night with Seth Meyers, and was the first African American female to write for a late-night network talk show in the U.S.
  • Live Music in Venues: What’s Next? – 2020 was a year of catastrophic impact for the live music industry as the pandemic brought the industry to a screeching halt. A year later, this session brings together independent venue perspectives from across the US., including Troubadour talent booker Amy Madrigali, Iridium director of artist relations & programming Grace Blake, First Avenue Productions president and CEO Dayna Frank and moderated by Pollstar, VenuesNow executive editor Andy Gensler. How have they been able to support developing talent? What’s ahead for their establishment and how they can get back to supporting a full schedule of acts?
  • Melinda Gates + Kelly Corrigan Talk Big Change – For more than two decades, Melinda Gates has been on a mission. Her goal, as co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has been to find solutions for people with the most urgent needs, wherever they live. Throughout this journey, she has come to a critical conclusion: when we lift up women, we lift up humanity. In conversation with podcaster, PBS host, and bestselling author Kelly Corrigan, Gates will discuss her bestselling book, “The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World,” and its stories of the empowered women Gates has met over the years. Gates will talk about the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s work around family planning, education, and gender equality, and she will call us to action—urging us to drive progress in our homes, workplaces, and communities.
  • Music’s Limitless Variations – Hear from Lenzo Yoon, the Global CEO of BTS’ label Big Hit Entertainment (hereafter referred to as Big Hit), as he explains how Big Hit was able to see what comes next, as well as prepare for the future at every critical juncture, and share Big Hit’s past, present and tomorrow. Yoon presents prospects and insights on the future of the K-pop industry and, furthermore, on the future of the global entertainment industry.
  • Ocean Storytelling with James Cameron & Brian Skerry – Join world-renowned filmmaker and National Geographic Explorer at Large James Cameron and National Geographic Explorer and Photographer Brian Skerry on a guided adventure into the deep blue to discuss the upcoming Disney+ original documentary series Secrets of the Whales. Filmed over three years in 24 locations, avid underwater conservationists Cameron and Skerry join forces to deliver an epic, awe-inspiring look at the incredible life and culture of whales and how the world’s largest mammals are facing the challenge of an ever-changing ocean. Moderated by OceanXplorers executive producer Orla Doherty.
  • The Quest Effect: Inside VR’s Next Chapter – Anyone who has entered virtual reality knows what a transformative experience donning a headset can be. Until recently, that experience was enjoyed mainly by hard-core VR enthusiasts. This year, all-in-one VR has become better, more powerful, and more affordable, expanding and changing the makeup of who spends time in VR. Now, that new group is discovering how great VR can be — not only for games, but also for fitness, media, hangouts with friends, and even real work. Join Mark Rabkin, Vice President of Oculus at Facebook, for a discussion about the future of VR, its changing ecosystem, and what its recent success means for the development of the next computing platform.
  • STARZ’S “Power” Universe Collides – Join STARZ’S Power Universe co-creator, Curtis “50 Cent” JacksonPower Book II: Ghost cast: Michael Rainey Jr.Mary J. Blige, and Cliff “Method Man” SmithPower Book III: Raising Kanan cast: Mekai Curtis and Patina Miller; and Power Book IV: Force lead: Joseph Sikora, for the first time ever as the Power Universe collides. Moderated by media personality and bestselling author Angie MartinezPower stars will discuss: the legacy of the Power Universe, the latest on upcoming seasons, the future and fate of new and iconic characters.
  • Ted Lasso: Emotion in the Edit – Join producers and members of the Ted Lasso editorial team in a panel discussion on the magic of Bill Lawrence shows (ScrubsCougar TownSpin City) and how editorial is the true partner in landing the jokes, drawing out emotion, and making it feel like you’re spending 30 minutes with your long time pack of friends. American Cinema Editors (ACE) CinemaEditor Magazine writer Nancy Jundi will moderate the panel with representatives from the Ted Lasso creative and editorial team (Bill LawrenceKip KroegerMelissa McCoy, and A.J. Catoline) to elaborate on the many considerations that go into building and honoring a character across episodes, seasons and a series.
  • Who Controls the Past: The Tulsa Race Massacre – How is it possible that the 1921 massacre of as many as thousands of Black people in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was almost erased from US history? And why is it finally penetrating the national consciousness? Featured in HBO’s The Watchmen and Lovecraft Country, this history survived because of the dedicated efforts of Black Tulsans, including the descendants of survivors, who have made it their life’s work to uncover what really happened and make sure we never forget. This session, moderated by Jeffery Robinson from Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America, examines the work of activists Dr. Tiffany CrutcherChief Egunwale F. Amusan, and Kristi Orisabiyi Williams to take control of the historical narrative, and in so doing, to force a reckoning on racial justice in this country and a long overdue conversation on reparations for Black Americans.
  • Why Do We Fear Innovation? – A conversation featuring actress, author, and neuroscientist Mayim Bialik and historian, philosopher, and bestselling author Yuval Noah Harari, moderated by Tech Open Air founder Niko Woischnik. From the printing press to vaccines to artificial intelligence, the introduction of almost any transformative technology has been met with wonder as well as fear and rejection. Many of history’s greatest inventors were considered heretics – the archetype of the mad scientist exists for a reason. Why does the new still scare us? What does it take to build acceptance for transformative ideas? How does the unprecedented scientific progress to deliver COVID vaccines influence this? What role does disinformation play in shaping our fears? How can we ensure innovators consider ethical issues, so outcomes can lead to the betterment of people and the planet? What can innovators learn from artists and creators of fiction? Presented by Leaps by Bayer and Tech Open Air Berlin.
  • Why The Music Biz is Buzzing About the Metaverse – In the midst of the 2020 global pandemic, one of the biggest concerts ever took place in the virtual worlds of Roblox. Two-time Grammy Award winner Lil Nas X gave a performance debut of his new single ‘Holiday’ and other top hits, dancing and socializing with fans, and attracting over 30 million concert views in this revolutionary music experience. The concert’s unprecedented success was made possible by the Metaverse, a social and technological phenomenon driven by a new generation growing up online and global platforms paving a new way for people to be together, even when they can’t in person. Hear from Maverick Management music manager Zach Kardisch, futurist and CEO of Futures Intelligence Group Cathy Hackl, Roblox Global Head of Music Jon Vlassopulos, and Columbia Records SVP, Experiential Marketing and business development Ryan Ruden about how the Metaverse is shaping the future of music business, today.
  • Breaking the Sonic Color Line: A discussion about authenticity of voice in media, defeating racial stereotypes in voice acting, the impact of race in audio ads and how the industry can come together and make real change featuring DJ, actress and entrepreneur MC Lyte; Pandora Group Creative Director Roger Sho Gehrmann; and voice-over and television actress Joan Baker.
  • The Chainsmokers on launching MANTIS VC: Grammy Award-winning and Billboard Chart topping artist/producer duo, The Chainsmokers, are a dominating musical force with a diverse repertoire of songs that have led them to become one of world’s biggest recording artists. Alex Pall and Drew Taggart have expanded The Chainsmokers’ empire into film and television, tequila, philanthropy, and most recently their venture capital firm Mantis. Hear their story on how the duo have evolved their music career into so much more.
  • A Conversation with Icons Queen Latifah and LL COOL J: From the mic to the big screen, award-winning rappers, actors and producers Queen Latifah and LL Cool J have been major forces in the entertainment industry for over three decades. Queen Latifah executive produces and stars as the first female Equalizer, Robyn McCall, in the reimagining of the series Equalizer, and LL Cool J stars as Special Agent Sam Hanna on “NCIS: Los Angeles.” Join them for a lively, in-depth conversation about their illustrious careers in music, television and movies (in front and behind the cameras), the cultural resonance and timeliness of their series, and much more.
  • From Moonlight to The Underground Railroad: Barry Jenkins & Composer Nicholas Britell: A conversation with Academy Award-winning filmmaker Barry Jenkins and with Academy Award-nominated and Emmy Award-winning composer Nicholas Britell (Succession), where they will discuss the joy, delicate nuances, challenges and unexpected discoveries from their work together. The pair will talk about their unique creative process in building a singular audiovisual identity with a specific focus on their upcoming Amazon Original limited series, The Underground Railroad, based on Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name. Jenkins and Britell first collaborated on Moonlight, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. During the making of Moonlight, the duo formed an inimitable rapport that brought them back together again for If Beale Street Could TalkThe Underground Railroad will stream in more than 240 countries and territories worldwide on Amazon Prime Video in 2021.
  • Hi, I’m Dave: Hailed by Rolling Stone as one of the best TV shows of 2020, FXX’s DAVE is based on the life of Dave Burd (aka Lil Dicky), and centered on a neurotic man who’s convinced himself that he’s destined to be one of the best rappers of all time. The critically-acclaimed first season explored ambition, mental illness and masculinity in the world of hip-hop. Join co-creator/executive producer/writer/star Dave Burd (aka Lil Dicky), co-creator/executive producer Jeff Schaffer, executive producer Saladin Patterson and series star GaTa for DAVE’s first panel at SXSW. Season 1 is available on FX on Hulu; season two will premiere on FXX in 2021.
  • How GenZ Duets the News on TikTok: Hear about tactics publishers are using to build relationships with young audiences on TikTok, and the content that moves audiences to action with The Washington Post video producer Dave JorgensonNowThis politics producer Ian McKenna; and content creator Jackie James.
  • Leading Safely + Motivating Empathetically: Learn how the hospitality industry have changed their tactics to adapt to the ever-changing health and wellness regulations and lead, motivate and engage their employees, colleagues and communities; eaturing Blackberry Farm Vice President of Food & Beverage Andy ChabotFood & Wine editor-in-chief Hunter Lewis; executive chef and Cúrate Bar de Tapas and La Bodega by Cúrate co-owner Katie Button; and award-winning chef and activist Marcus Samuelsson
  • .Making Emotional Connections With Volumetric Video: Hear from three seasoned creatives on the most effective way to make emotional connections through volumetric video with writer, director, and new media artist Illya Szilak; Microsoft’s Mixed Reality Capture Studios creative director Jason Waskey, and producer and Atlas V co-founder Antoine Cayrol.
  • RIP Live Shows? Concerts in the Time of COVID: A conversation about the ways the live/touring industry are trying to stay afloat, what’s working, what isn’t, and what still needs to be done to save the music we love, featuring Driift general manager Adam Shore; Panache Booking and Panache Management founder Michelle Cable; and Paradigm Talent Agency Executive, Wilder Records founder and Home School co-founder Tom Windish.

Music Performances

There are normally about 2,000 artists who perform at SXSW every year. However, due to nightclub closures, the performance lineup has been reduced for 2021. Some of the announced artists who will be performing virtually include Indigo Sparke, Place to Bury StrangersFrancisca Valenzuela, SquidGrrrl GangDarkooSamantha Sanchez, Holy Fuck, Astrid Sonne, NAYANA IZ, and Jealous

Showcases and presenters include AfroFuture Sounds (British Underground & DAJU Presents), Hotel Vegas & Hotel Free TV, Damnably, EQ Austin, Jazz re:freshed Outernational, FOCUS Wales, Roskilde Festival, Taiwan Beats, Close Encounter Club, Sounds from Spain, M for Montreal, Flipped Coin KOREA, Carefree Black Girl, New Zealand Music, KUTX The Breaks, Dedstrange, Fierce Panda x End of the Trail, Brazil Inspires the Future, and ÅÄÖ…Sounds Swedish.

Movie and TV Premieres

Demi Lovato in “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” (Photo courtesy of OBB Media)

SXSW has a wide variety of feature-length and short films. In 2021, the SXSW Film Festival has music documentaries as its opening, centerpiece and closing films. “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” is the opening film, the Charli XCX quarantine chronicle “Alone Together” is the centerpiece, and “Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free” is the closing film.

Here are some of the more high-profile feature films that will have their world premieres at the festival: The psychological thriller “Here Before,” starring Andrea Riseborough as a woman questioning reality. The drama “Language Lesson,” starring Natalie Morales and Mark Duplass as a Spanish teacher and her student who become friends. And the superhero action flick “The Spine of Night,” starring Richard E. Grant, Lucy Lawless, Patton Oswalt, Betty Gabriel and Joe Manganiello.  Documentary world premieres include “United States vs. Reality Winner”; “Introducing, Selma Blair”; “WeWork: or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn”; “Hysterical,” about female stand-up comedians;

TV shows that will have episodes premiering at SXSW 2021 include Starz’s “Confronting a Serial Killer,” showrunner Po Kutchins and director Joe Berliner’s chronicle of the relationship between serial killer Sam Little and author Jillian Lauren; HBO Max’s “Made for Love,” starring Cristin Milioti as a divorcée who’s out for revenge; and the third season of Starz’s “The Girlfriend Experience” and Amazon Prime Video’s thriller series “Them.”