Shania Twain’s life: More hurt than a hat full of country songs

“I had a different ear for music than other kids,” says Shania Twain.Netflix

I don’t know about you, but I often think of Shania Twain. Not so. It’s just the trajectory of her life and the extraordinary twists and turns in it. You couldn’t invent it. Unless you write a bunch of country songs with emotional weight about loss, fate, happiness and adversity.

Shania Twain: Not just a girl (streams Netflix starting Tuesday) is about her life so far, and boy did life hurt more than a hat full of country songs. The 90-minute documentary gives a solid and unusually candid look at the career and life of a successful artist. There’s a degree of hagiography in it, but there’s also a lot of Twain who is open and vulnerable in a way that you can’t fake.

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Many Canadians will be familiar with the first part of her story, but perhaps without the benefit of Twain’s own unvarnished voice in telling it. “I had a different ear for music than other kids,” she says. Her mother knew and would take little Eileen Twain to sing at local bars in Timmins, Ontario from the age of 8, sometimes when her father was asleep. There was violence in that household, and if her father found out about the singing, “it wouldn’t end well,” she says.

There are recordings of her singing when she was 11 years old. Singer Mary Bailey says, “The guitar was bigger than her, but there was so much emotion in the voice.” Bailey later became Twain’s manger and helped launch her career in Nashville. We see her on CBC The Tommy Hunter Show at 15. “When I was 16, I wanted to sing rock,” she says today. “My parents were not pleased.”

Twain and Mutt Lange.Netflix

At the age of 22, her life changed radically. Both of her parents died in a car accident and she had to take care of her three siblings. She did this by appearing in a Vegas-style show at the Deerhurst Resort in Huntsville, Ontario. “There was no other way to get ahead than to work my ass off,” she concludes.

Those years in Nashville in the 1990s, when she soon rose to superstardom, are well covered here. (The program is also like a textbook manual for the music industry, with plenty of input from record producers and artist managers.) She says she had little creative input on her first album, but it was her control over the video for the song What made you say that that changed everything. Building on the resulting images, she naturally featured a waistline that eventually caught the world’s attention. Mutt Lange became her producer, co-songwriter and quickly her husband.

That period, shaped by their sound and looks, brought its own little misery. Here she talks about the assumptions that Mutt Lange was a Svengali who created her entire oeuvre and appearance from scratch. The representatives of their record company now regret this and state that Twain was very much responsible.

Twain has seen it all now.Netflix

The climax of the story isn’t her stunning worldwide success. nope Towards the end of a major tour, she discovered she had Lyme disease, and part of the impact was serious damage to her voice. “In this search for the cause of this lack of control over my voice and this change in my voice, I faced divorce,” she says. “My husband is leaving me for another woman. Now I’m at a whole different low and don’t see the point in pursuing a music career anymore.” Worse, her husband had left her for her close friend.

There is something more than poignant about this extraordinary person, the embodiment of a proud, confident woman brought to her knees by illness and personal heartbreak. A disruptive figure and an icon, her life fell apart in a short time. And she’s not afraid to say bluntly how hurt and scared she was.

Not everything in her personal story is presented here for public consumption. But you certainly get a picture of the damage done to her voice and the strength it takes to deal with it. Of course, the documentary ends on the redeeming arc of a comeback of sorts with a residency in Vegas and her overcoming genuine fears about whether she can still sing. But with all the upside towards the end, you realize that Shania Twain had something in return that had nothing to do with her own actions. It’s a fact that country music is filled with overused cliches about pain, tears, and betrayal. But Twain has now lived it all. Think about it.

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