“Ewww!” It’s not the way most people would respond to the news that someone has expressed a desire to shoot them. The gun threat to Britney Spears emanates not from a crazed fan but the wife of the former governor of Maryland. Even more remarkably, the female TV interviewer doesn’t immediately condemn the sentiment, but goes on to suggest to Britney that the pop star is setting a bad example to young girls. “I’m not here to babysit her kids,” Britney responds. A couple more “Ewwws” however, and she breaks down in tears.

Life in the glare of the spotlight was only going to get worse from that infamous moment in 2003. Framing Britney compresses two decades’ worth of hostile media coverage, beginning with prurience and outrage and morphing into schadenfreude and sneering at her deteriorating mental state. Could it really ever have been acceptable for TV interviewers to ask about her breasts or her virginity? For a magazine cover-line to cheer on Justin Timberlake because “at least he got into Britney’s pants”? For her to be asked by a female interviewer what she did to cause Timberlake “so much pain” after their break-up? For a TV quiz to pose the question: “What did Britney Spears lose this year” — answer, “her mind”?

At the height of her well-publicised woes, Britney’s father Jamie Spears applied for the legal status of conservator, giving him control over her career and finances, together with a co-conservator called, I kid you not, Andrew Wallet. Conservatorship is generally used to protect the confused elderly from fraud or malign influence. Conservators can make decisions on medical treatments and finances, control the flow of information and even who gets access to their charge. The conservatee, meanwhile, foots the bill for everything, including their fees. As applied to a young and active woman, the institution starts to look like something from a Victorian novel — Wilkie Collins would have a field day.

The list of interested parties who refused to be involved in the film includes her immediate family, but there’s an unsavoury clip of her brother Bryan expressing disgust at her independent attitude. Her former assistant, agent, and a record company mogul are all quick to defend the spirited star. In January 2019 Britney suddenly cancelled a new Las Vegas residency and seemingly disappeared from view. A legal bid for the conservatorship to become a “hybrid business model” rather than a mechanism for protecting an individual appalled two Britney-watchers with a podcast, and the viral #FreeBritney campaign was born. Now, thanks to squadrons of noisy, midriff-baring, placard-waving protesters, the whole institution of conservatorship is under uncomfortable scrutiny and Britney herself, appearing to signal to fans from behind her palisade of legal protection, may have given her blessing.

★★★★☆

On Hulu/Sky Documentaries/Now TV now