Long Live Montero: In Conversation with Lil Nas X Documentary Directors Zachary Manual and Carlos Lopez Estrada

It might be easy to assume that Lil Nas X has built up walls and constructed how he wishes to present himself to the public, to both his fans and haters. Since we were first introduced to the artist thanks to the mega success of Old Town Road he has released an EP, an album and made headlines for more than just the release of this music. Since coming out he has even made the assumptions and headlines about him a centre of his art and videos. 

But leading up to the international release of his new documentary Long Live Montero (also the name of the tour it follows) We sat down with the two directors of the project Carlos Lopez Estrada (of Blindspotting, Raya and the Last Dragon) and Zac Manuel (Netflix’s documentary Descendant). Telling us about the inner mechanisms of Lil Nas X’s world, more fittingly, Montero’s world, it is as much a film about his private life as it is about the professional world in which he operates. 

Unsure what the footage would become, the two directors were quick to realise that it was about more than just the live show that had to be seen. Zac tells us “we started to think about transformation as kind of a larger theme. I mean, it was a theme of Nas’s show, and then it was also a theme of some of the things that he was talking about in the interviews. We started to kind of catch onto this theme of transformation, and then really pull that out.” 

Filming was “a process of discovery” as Carlos describes it. “We had the music, we had the show as the North Star, but we also were kind of piecing it together as we went. So I think that it was a good exercise in coming in with a vision and trying to get the most compelling footage, and then also just being very flexible and flowing with whatever would come our way.” 

Luckily it didn’t take long to see the path’s direction open up before them as Montero wasn’t one to shy away from such a process. Zac was able to film intimate discussions with the artist amidst the chaos of tour prep from the very beginning. “some of the stuff we’ve seen in the earlier scenes in the film, like when he’s in the car and he’s talking about how he got into music and after his grandmother passed, how he was having anxiety attacks and just feeling like he needed something that, you know, could heal him or heal his grief, that was like day three.” 

He was very open to the process and very receptive to the questions that we were asking.

As filmmakers whose work centres on major subject matters, they both agree that “filmmaking is a kind of a process of transference. So you give some of yourself and then you kind of expect people to give something back, hopefully,” as Zac describes the process. “It was very conversational, very informal in the way that we conducted interviews and the way that we were talking. So it just kind of allowed the space for transparency.” 

Carlos and Zac would make the perfect duo to spearhead the film as their work has never been known to shy away from the themes of identity and masculinity as what draws them to their work is a mutual understanding and respect for who and what they centre. Zac’s stories “illuminate a kind of prismatic nature of black southern identity. That is a really important part of (Nas’s) story, whether it’s explicit or implicit, to be able to explore the story of someone who I feel like I’ve heard their story before, or it’s like my peers story, or my friend’s story, you know, obviously, like, to this umpteenth level, because of what he’s done with his life. But there’s something about it that feels very familiar, but also extraordinary at the same time, and I think it’s important to explore that kind of dichotomy of life and existence of black southern identity.” 

Carlos is attracted to stories of a similar nature but doesn’t think that “there’s a very strict sort of formula, like a prerequisite” to choosing his projects, but he can acknowledge and see himself in the work he makes regardless. “I’ve gravitated to stories about brown and black people because I relate to that experience on different levels. Also just being sort of an outsider, culturally to the country. I came here and found myself as a little bit of like, observing this culture from the outside. So I think that movies that deal with identity and movies that deal with characters finding themselves resonate with me.” 

I think it’s important to explore that kind of dichotomy of life and existence of black southern identity

Watching the documentary we’re reminded that as an audience we aren’t owed such revelations as Nas makes to the camera. He doesn’t have to tell us what it feels like to be both gay and black, coming out to his religious family and the process of healing that follows. If anything it bridges the divide between who he is as a performer and who he is as a person, illuminating his lyrics even more. Getting such a behind-the-scenes look into his thoughts and humour illuminates that who Nas presents to the world is the same as who he is behind closed doors. Lil Nas X the performer isn’t a separate identity to Montero the person. Zac has observed for himself that “this is an artist who runs their own social media account, they’re writing a lot of their own music, if not all of their own music. They are very much in charge of what their image and their voice is in the world.” 

It would be easy to mistake this openness to share his story as brave, but Zac reminds us that he has to navigate this fame differently regardless of how he feels about it given how he has become a target for a parade of hate since coming out and being so direct about it so early in his career. “I would say he’s very courageous. It’s not a lack of fear, but it is like going forwards anyway.” Take for instance the moment in the documentary where we witness the types of protests that take place outside his concerts. “I got really close with his security team. And we talked about, ‘Okay, what do you do in the likely event that there’s a protest, or some sort of a threat of violence?’ But funnily enough, like, those plans were made for like, Dallas and Memphis, you know, they were pretty relegated to the south, so to have the protest happen in Boston was actually kind of a surprise. We weren’t anticipating that.” With plans in place for both Nas and his team’s safety, Zac still found it illuminating how the artist was able to handle the situation. “I mean, to see how he reacted to it was like, I think Montero 101.” “To make it into this really absurd but funny, punchline that’s actually redirected back at whoever is trying to send shots at him… I was maybe not surprised by that, but maybe surprised by the speed and the depth at which he was able to do it.” 

I think what’s really special about him is he’s very confident in his ability

If anything, the documentary shows that who Nas is as a performer and who he is as a person are one in the same. It could be easy to see the glitz as armour, and his public persona as a character. But to do so would underestimate the control with which he wields his career. Having witnessed it first hand whilst filming, Zac can vouch for Nas this way. “There’s not much of a mechanism behind them to kind of define who they are, maybe to support who they are, or to maybe highlight certain aspects of who they are, you know, bring in some really nice clothes here and there. But I think what’s really special about him is he’s very confident in his ability.” 

It is something both filmmakers are aware of, and Carlos, having been a part of both his live concert production as well as the documentary, attests to both his work ethic and awareness. “You hear a lot of stories about people who get very famous and become more and more disconnected“, “He understands his responsibility as a public figure and responsibility as a thought leader and as, a queer black man, so I think more than anything, just very moved by the thoughtfulness of his journey.” 

Long Live Montero is available to rent and buy now on the following platforms: Amazon, Google, iTunes, Kaleidescape, Microsoft, Rakuten, Sky and Vubiquity. 

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Words: Janita Purcell