The documentary on an aspiring singer in New Orleans comes with more questions than answers.
Presenting Princess Shaw raises a lot of questions. The documentary tells the story of New Orleans’ Samantha Montgomery, who sings under the name Princess Shaw. If you don’t recognize her name, that’s part of the point of the movie. If nothing else, the movie answers the question, “Who are those people who tried out during audition weeks for American Idol?” Actually, Shaw tried out for The Voice during the course of filming, and director Ido Haar shows us a woman with far more passion for singing than awareness of how to turn it into a career. The struggle to break through, along with the personal ones that accompany living her life, give the documentary its drama.
Presenting Princess Shaw opens Friday at the Broad Theater, and it is also a story from the digital world as she finds a measure of notoriety if not exactly fame with her YouTube vlog, where she shares her fears and anxieties reality television confessional-style, as well as a cappella versions of new songs that she wanted to save and return to. Some posts still have fewer than 50 views, and the occasional one spiked more than 500. As a viewer, it’s hard not to watch them, feel for her, and wonder if she should do something else—not because she can’t sing, but because the struggle appears to weigh on her so heavily. When does the desire to make it tip into something masochistic?
The documentary is also a cutting edge art story because Israeli artist Kutiman—real name Ophir Kutiel—took one of Shaw’s a cappellas and matched it with other solo instrumental videos he found on YouTube and, like a DJ, pulled them together and edited them to create new pieces of music. They resemble the work of one of his heroes, DJ Shadow on Endtroducing....., but his twist on sampling adds a level of ethical complexity. He’s not working with vinyl record samples; he’s sampling real people. What does he owe them? Kutiman is asked a version of this question at one point, and his answer was a little cavalier.
In fact, the movie exists because of Kutiman’s mash-up videos. Haar set out at first to find out who some of the people were who contributed to his art without knowing it while Kutiman edited a song/video. According to Shaw, Haar let the other stories go and focused on her when he saw the way her life was going. What becomes clear and complicated fairly early in the film is that he knows what Kutiman is doing and Shaw doesn’t. As she goes down emotional and professional rabbit holes, it’s hard not to feel like he isn’t playing fair by withholding the kind of knowledge that would lighten her load.
Now that the movie’s out, Shaw’s okay with his decision. “I have no ill will towards him at all,” she says. “He did it the right way. If I would’ve known, it would’ve been different.”
Haar doesn’t presume to know what will be best for Kutiman, though. Haar preserves his enigmatic presence, letting us see a solitary Kutiman do things like eat, watch videos, produce, and smile beatifically. The upside of that choice is that Shaw remains the unquestioned heart of Presenting Princess Shaw, but the person with the power remains, Wizard of Oz-like, largely obscured and unknown.
Eventually in the film, Shaw meets Kutiman, and since the film’s release on the festival circuit, they have performed together a number of times. She confirms that the real Kutiman is very sweet and very funny. “Kutiman is a wonderful, down-to-Earth guy,” Shaw says. “If you don't like him, something is wrong with you.”
Presenting Princess Shaw dramatizes a number of culture clashes—not only along ethnic lines but what happens when his post-modern art sensibility meets a very traditional notion of music, show business, performance and success. The movie treats her much like a naive artist and gets dangerously close to the condescension that goes with it. At one point, you also can’t help but be aware of the amount of money floating around his end of the relationship—money that could be very practically used at hers.
By the film’s last act, it’s hard to be sure of what you’re even seeing. Shaw ends up in Israel performing with Kutiman, some of his musicians, and some of the other musicians who appeared in the videos. The sequence is powerful, and if you aren’t moved at points during this sequence, there are some questions to ask about you. But what are we seeing? Shaw’s validation? Shaw’s breakthrough moment? Or something more ephemeral?
“It was my dream come true,” she says. “It was dope fresh. I felt so alive.”
So far, critical commentary on the movie has treated it as Cinderella story, including reviews at Gambit and Nola.com. Both reviewers appear to have quit the movie before its final scene, which calls the Cinderella narrative into question. Shaw certainly doesn’t see it that way. “It’s a real story,” she says. “No Cinderella here.” Her experience with Kutiman has allowed her to sing more, but mainly in conjunction with screenings of the movie. Her career independent of him remains just as nascent as it was when shooting started, but she does have her first show on her own coming up in Atlanta later this summer.
In a way, the film asks good questions of the viewer too. Shaw’s vitality and realness make her a compelling center for the movie, and I realize that many of my impulses are to protect her or to see her treated more equally and fairly by Haar. But is that me imposing my values on her life, just as Haar did? If she’s happy, shouldn't I be happy for her? When I talked to her, I wondered why she wasn’t at least uneasy with the inequality in the treatments she and Kutiman received in the movie.
Maybe it has to do with something more basic that success, stardom or celebrity. In a scene in the movie, she’s moved to tears, and I wonder if then and now, the most important thing to Shaw was that she saw herself and saw her story. She had a dream come true, and even if she woke up from it, doesn’t that count for something? The questions Presenting Princess Shaw provokes are good ones, but we’d never hang around long enough to think about them if she wasn’t someone you root for, not because of what she does as a singer but because of who she is as a person. There are clearly points when she’s putting on or compulsively oversharing, but even in those moments she’s real.