Live to Lead, review: a torrent of motivational gloop from Harry and Meghan

The Duchess of Sussex in new documentary series Live to Lead - Netflix
The Duchess of Sussex in new documentary series Live to Lead – Netflix

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex are off to a blockbuster start to their new careers as Netflix content creators. Harry & Meghan, the sprawling, intermittently gossipy series chronicling their decoupling from the Royal family, has, in just a few weeks, become the most-watched documentary in the streamer’s history. But now comes the tricky second album – and those drawn to the soap-opera element of the Sussexes’ story will be underwhelmed by Live to Lead.

If ever there were a televisual equivalent of eating your greens, this is it. Seven half-hour episodes explore the life experiences of “inspirational” figures from across the generations: the sort of people whose words end up on fridge magnets and aphoristic Facebook memes. They include, for instance, the late US Supreme Court judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Gen Z environmental activist Greta Thunberg.

The latter might have a few choice words to offer on the Sussexes’ recently reported fondness for private jets, but we’ll never know: she and they don’t actually meet. Instead, the Duke and Duchess pop up at the start of each episode to introduce the subject, and Meghan delivers self-actualised tongue-twisters – “the legacy that New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is building extends from her belief in never losing her capacity for empathy” – while Harry quotes Nelson Mandela, by whose Foundation Live to Lead is co-produced. They then retreat, and New Zealand documentarian Geoff Blackwell gets on with the tedious business of conducting the actual interviews.

It isn’t that the Sussexes were too busy to step behind the camera and ask feminist campaigner Gloria Steinem whether she had a message for her 20-year-old self (a tedious question that Blackwell springs upon a number of the interviewees). Several of these recordings predate their deal with Netflix. The Bader Ginsburg conversation, for instance, was taped in 2019, 12 months before her death from cancer – and long before Harry and Meghan, through their Archewell production company, entered into a $100 million collaboration with the streaming platform. Bader Ginsburg reveals that her husband was her “biggest supporter”: “He was the first boy I ever knew who cared that I had a brain.” This, you suspect, is the sort of message the Sussexes can get behind.

The Jacinda Ardern sit-down likewise dates from three years ago, and it came as news to New Zealand’s premier that she was to feature in a Harry and Meghan documentary. She had originally agreed to be interviewed by the Nelson Mandela Foundation as part of an initiative “producing resources for future leaders, with the focus on young leaders”. The first she knew of her being sucked into the gravitational field of Planet Sussex was when Netflix released the trailer for Live to Lead earlier this month.

Greta Thunberg - Netflix
Greta Thunberg – Netflix

Harry and Meghan’s peripheral role shouldn’t detract from what is an occasionally revealing collection of films. Former South African Supreme Court judge Albie Sachs – a white man who campaigned alongside Nelson Mandela for the end of apartheid – speaks about forgiving the senior policeman who targeted him for assassination by bomb. He talks of the “soft vengeance” of healing and moving on, saying that, with closure, figurative “roses and lilies” will grow out of the arm he lost in the attack. Blackwell also gets a good interview out of Greta Thunberg, who opens up about her mental-health struggles. Her lowest moments, she says, are “when you are too depressed to see that you actually matter”.

But over seven episodes, Live to Lead’s stridently upbeat tone curdles into a glutinous fake positivity. It doesn’t help that the questions often seem designed to elicit trite axioms, rather than to get under the skin of the interviewee. “What is your hope for our generation?” “Where does… courage come from?” “What does leadership mean to you?” Were the series any woollier, you could stitch on some buttons and wear it as a jacket.

As a brand extension, Live to Lead dovetails with the image the Sussexes are keen to present to the world. It’s gushy and tastefully assembled, but with the oppressive earnestness of a morale-boosting corporate video produced by a HR department that has too much time and money. Netflix, mindful of its audience’s appetite for royal scandal, must be hoping that whatever Harry and Meghan do next packs far greater oomph – and has more to do with Megxit than Mandela.

Live to Lead is on Netflix now

Published by anthonyhayble

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