The life of Shania Twain: More hurt than a handful of country songs

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

I don’t know about you, but I think a lot about Shania Twain. Not this way. It’s just the trajectory of his life and its extraordinary twists. You couldn’t invent. Unless you write a bunch of emotionally charged country songs about loss, fate, luck and misfortune.

Shania Twain: Not just a girl (Netflix streams from Tuesday) talks about his life so far, and boy that life has hurt more than a handful of country songs. The 90-minute documentary is a solid and unusually candid insight into the career and life of a successful artist. There’s some hagiography in it, but there’s also an awful lot of Twains who are outspoken and vulnerable in ways you can’t fake.

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The early part of his story is familiar to many Canadians, but perhaps without the benefit of Twain’s unvarnished voice. “I had a different ear for music than other kids,” she says. Her mother knew this and took little Eileen Twain to sing in local bars in Timmins, Ontario from the age of 8, sometimes when her father was sleeping. There was violence in this household and if her father found out about singing, “it wouldn’t end well,” she says.

There are pictures of her singing at the age of 11. Singer Mary Bailey says: ‘The guitar was bigger than her, but there was so much emotion in the voice. Later, Bailey would babysit Twain and help launch his career in Nashville. We see it on CBC The Tommy Hunter Show at 15. “At 16, I wanted to sing rock,” she says now. “My parents were not happy.”

Twain and Mutt

At 22, her life has completely changed. Both of her parents died in a car accident and she had to take care of her three siblings. She did it by performing in a Vegas-style show at the Deerhurst Resort in Huntsville, Ontario. “There was no other way to move forward than to work my ass,” she sums up.

Those 1990s years in Nashville, where she quickly became a superstar, are well covered here. (The program is also like a textbook on the music industry, with lots of input from record producers and artist managers.) She says she had little creativity in her debut album, but it was his control over the song’s video. What made you say that it changed everything. She relied on the footage of this and, of course, showed a belly that finally caught the world’s attention. Mutt Lange became her producer, co-songwriter and soon, her husband.

This period, defined by its sound and look, brought its own little miseries. Here she talks about the assumptions that Mutt Lange was a Svengali who created all his artwork and is watching out of nowhere. His record company reps are sorry about that now, noting that Twain was very responsible.

Twain has now been through it

The highlight of the story is not his incredible worldwide success. No. Towards the end of a massive tour, she realized she had Lyme disease and part of the impact was severe damage to her voice. “In this search to determine what was causing this lack of control over my voice and this change in my voice, I was facing a divorce,” she says. “My husband left me for another woman. Now I’m on a whole other level and I don’t see any point in pursuing a music career. Worse, her husband had left her for his close friend.

There is something more than poignant about this extraordinary person, the epitome of a swaggering, empowered woman brought to her knees by illness and personal grief. A disruptive figure and icon, his life fell apart in a short time. And she’s not afraid to say how hurt and terrified she was.

Not everything in his personal history is presented here for public consumption. But we certainly understand the damage done to his voice and the strength needed to deal with it. Of course, the documentary ends with the redemptive arc of a comeback of sorts with a Vegas residency and her overcoming real fears about whether she can still sing. Yet despite all the upward movement towards the end, you realize that Shania Twain had an edge that had nothing to do with her own actions. It’s a fact that country music is filled with overused clichés about pain, tears and betrayal. But Twain has now experienced it all. Think about it.

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