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The guiding principle of PBS’ American Masters franchise — and of a whole subset of documentaries at large — is that there is something to be learned from the stories of great people, takeaways that can either be applied to our presumably less-great lives or at least be sources of inspiration.
Rob Gordon Bralver’s Moby Doc, focusing on the life of Richard Melville “Moby” Hall, intends to be almost an anti-American Masters entry, dabbling in an eclectic and ostensibly weird aesthetic in the process of boiling down the iconic musician’s personal journey to…nothing, really. For a man who has written multiple memoirs, Moby’s introspection is somewhere in the range of “moderate,” but his accumulated takeaways are close to nil.
Release date: Friday, May 28
Director: Rob Gordon Bralver92 minutes
That very likely is the point of Moby Doc — that from the outside you might see the lives of the rich and successful and assume that they’re happy, but that isn’t necessarily true and, in fact, there might be nothing to be gained from emulating or even learning about those people. This happens not to be a lesson that I needed a feature-length documentary to reveal to me, and I mostly found Moby Doc to be Film School 101 noodling. If you do, however, want or need a documentary to instruct you that you don’t need a feature documentary about a celebrity to instruct you, at least Moby Doc features lots of footage of Moby with hair, plus singing lab-rat puppets.
“Why in the world would I want to make a documentary about myself?” Moby asks at the top of the documentary. “And I think that’s a pretty legitimate question.”
He starts by breaking down the illusion of celebrity contentment, using pictures of figures including Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Cobain, Anthony Bourdain and Robin Williams — all figures you can rest assured wouldn’t ever have wanted to be treated as object cautionary tales in a documentary about Moby — to prove a noncontroversial thesis.
From this fourth-wall-breaking introduction, however, Moby Doc plays out very, very, very much like a traditional linear biopic as Moby sketches out the basics of his upbringing — one that took him from childhood poverty on the edge of a wealthy Connecticut enclave to youthful poverty in New York City to stardom to the brink of irrelevance to even greater stardom to the abuse of drugs and alcohol to whatever he is today.
To obscure how very conventional Moby’s personal story is, the documentary’s subject and its filmmaker — working together in a way that guarantees candor of only the most heavily calculated sort — put the tale through an assortment of artistic removes. There’s animation from Moby, Gary Baseman and Steve Emmons, which starts with the musician sketching things out in the most rudimentary and DIY of fashions — including the aforementioned singing rat puppets, presumably meant to call back the mouse chorus from Babe — and becomes more complex and refined as it goes along. There are staged reenactments featuring Moby cohorts like Laura Dawn, Daniel Ahearn and Daron Murphy playing improvised versions of Moby’s mother, her string of unappealing boyfriends and wee Moby. There are staged therapy sessions with Moby talking to singer Julie Mintz, somewhat playing a curious shrink. And then sometimes Moby is just wandering through different locations — a dried river bed, a New York City street — yelling biographic information into his phone.
It’s accompanied by unexplained — because they’re superficial and obvious — doses of absurdity and surrealism, like Moby standing on an outcropping in the desert as a drone flies pensively around him, or Moby marching in a religious ritual with people wearing animal masks. Moby’s buddy David Lynch makes several appearances against eerie backdrops, usually repeating information provided in previous segments and offering unpleasant reminders that most of Moby Doc was shot as if by an art student from the ’80s who just discovered early David Lynch. There are some pretty images and some whimsical presentations of personal trauma, without anything rising to the level of viscerally moving.
Moby can spin an amusingly harrowing yarn — like that time he woke up after a night of blackout tour bus partying covered in an unknown person’s poop — but more of his stories boil down to “I was in an expensive hotel room, but I wasn’t happy” or “David Bowie was my BBQ buddy, but I wasn’t happy.” There’s lots of Moby’s music here, but no insight into the creation of it. There’s lots of talk about several descents into rock bottom, but no insight into what pulled him out.
Maybe “Don’t take your advice on self-improvement from famous people” is sage wisdom, but alternatively maybe if you’ve got a platform like Moby has here, that’s a bit negligent as well. As best I can draw a causal line here, wealth and fame hasn’t made Moby happy, but being a militant animal rights activist has — though whether a white guy who made millions off of appropriating the blues really and truly should be getting up on stages and saying that animal agriculture is as bad as slavery is for everybody to decide for themselves.
As the punny title suggests, Moby Doc is an epic journey, one that leads to a non-nihilistic nothingness. Moby fans should absolutely book passage on their own metaphorical Pequods to seek it out. If you’re more ambivalent or noncommittal on all things Moby, I escaped alone to tell thee not to bother with this doc.
Distributor: Greenwich Entertainment
Production company: Little Walnut Productions
Director: Rob Gordon Bralver
Screenwriters: Rob Gordon Bralver and Moby
Producer: Rob Gordon Bralver
Executive producer: Moby
Cinematographer: Nathan Haugaard
Editor: Rob Gordon Bralver
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