J. Lo’s Tragic Fame Cycle

Halftime, the Netflix documentary about the performer, posits that rebirth is essential for the modern celebrity—but it takes a hidden toll.

Jennifer Lopez gets makeup applied in a scene from "Halftime."
Netflix

Jennifer Lopez has lived more lives than most celebrities. She’s been a dancer and a movie star and a pop singer and an entrepreneur and a reality-TV mainstay and part of the reason for the existence of Google Images. She’s been box-office gold and box-office poison. She’s considered one of the most influential Latina celebrities in America, both revered and denigrated—though not always in equal measure.

Consider it a minor miracle, then, that Halftime, the Netflix documentary about Lopez’s career, has room to trace more than 30 years of fame as well as follow her in the months leading up to her performance at the 2020 Super Bowl. Like other celebrity-endorsed portraits, Halftime feels both candid and safe. The director Amanda Micheli’s interviewees include only Lopez and members of her team—her parents, her manager, and, yes, Ben Affleck—and the behind-the-scenes footage comes across as familiar.

Yet Halftime isn’t entirely a hagiography. After the Oscar nominations overlook her magnetic performance in Hustlers, Lopez laughs off the snub, but Micheli tracks her expressions as she rehearses for the Super Bowl afterward, her intensity betraying her frustration. Micheli applies a hazy filter to many of her shots, giving them a tunnel-vision-like quality that suggests that Lopez is driven by a desperate, hyperfocused need to be admired—along with an extraordinary fear of failure. Halftime reveals that Lopez understands herself to be a perennial underdog, destined to be taken less seriously than her peers. In doing so, it exposes the grotesque nature of the modern fame cycle: Stars are born, then torn apart, then cheered on as they put themselves back together again, because the downfall-to-comeback loop is perpetually entertaining. Lopez has been vilified and vindicated so many times that rebirth has become her strength, the secret to her longevity. According to Halftime, however, every reset takes a fresh toll.

Indeed, Halftime is most compelling when Lopez tells one narrative while Micheli slyly suggests another. Lopez puts up a seemingly invincible front: She admits that she had low self-esteem and thought about quitting Hollywood when the mockery of her crescendoed in the early 2000s, but she discusses these moments almost as learning opportunities for the J. Lo brand. Yet Micheli captures the cost of that persistence. In one of the documentary’s most fascinating scenes, a doctor visits Lopez after she starts feeling ill. The performer, who says she rarely gets sick, dismisses her symptoms until he diagnoses her with an upper-respiratory infection. “I’ve been a little depressed, I’m not going to lie … I’ve just been working long hours, and I’m away from the kids,” she says warily. “It all just makes me a little bit sad.” She then pivots the conversation back to lighthearted territory, as if eager to change the subject. “Did you see my movie?” she asks, referring to Hustlers. “It’s fun. It’s a little dirty story, but you’ll like it.”

Halftime posits that Lopez depends on—and perhaps even likes—the challenge of continually proving her worth. As it fast-forwards through her many careers, the film depicts a pattern: Every time Lopez’s stardom has faltered, she’s changed her image. When her movie (and music) career stalled, she became an American Idol judge, rebranding herself as a single mom who empathized with everyday contestants instead of an inaccessible diva. When she felt she wasn’t in control of the films she was in, she produced Hustlers, channeling her energy into playing a gritty antiheroine. When she wasn’t nominated for an Oscar, she delivered a triumphant Super Bowl performance weeks later that proved how little she needed the Academy’s approval. Lopez has a savvy understanding of how inspiring her comebacks can be.

Still, Halftime falters when interrogating why Lopez wound up in this cycle at all. The film has segments about Lopez’s body image, race, and gender playing an adverse role in her reception, but it glosses over how she has often leveraged these traits to appeal to the widest audience possible. It also barely mentions her months-long estrangement from her family when she was a teenager. The question that the film asks but cannot answer is: Who is Lopez when her bona fides aren’t being questioned?

Since Halftime launched on Netflix, it’s made gossip headlines for a throwaway comment Lopez made about being given half the time that Super Bowl performers typically get for a set. She called the NFL’s decision to have two headliners—she shared the stage with Shakira—“the worst idea in the world.” (As her manager Benny Medina points out in the documentary, the move also suggested that a single Latina singer wouldn’t be able to impress America.) Lopez hasn’t spoken publicly about the apparent backlash, but the cherry-picking of her words already proves Halftime’s point: that Lopez attracts judgment with every move. She is again being labeled a diva who needs the spotlight to herself. She will again, inevitably, bounce back. Lopez has turned doubt into perhaps her greatest asset, but Halftime also makes clear that she hasn’t yet managed to transcend that cycle. For all the different lives J. Lo has led, that’s one rendition of herself she hasn’t experienced just yet.