Courtesy of Atzmor Productions
It was only two decades ago that a newfangled little technological tool called the World Wide Web sparked wide-eyed promises of a borderless, hyperconnected world where access to everything would be democratized and people would triumphantly come together. Then, of course, came online bullying, corporate paywalls, kiddie porn, and the Harlem Shake. But a new documentary premiering at TIFF this week brought renewed optimism in the WWW. The premise? Undiscovered talents belting out ballads in their jammies and inspiring people at the other end of the world to create music, entirely unbeknownst to them.
Israeli documentarian Ido Haar’s Thru You Princess takes as its starting point the mash-up antics of Kutiman (né Ophir Kutiel), an acclaimed, affably scruffy composer living on a kibbutz, whose ongoing “Thru You” project finds him scouring YouTube’s unmapped nooks and crannies for original music clips, which he then splices together into thrillingly unusual, split-screen audiovisual symphonies, and eventually re-uploads to the free streaming site. The catch? None of the selected participants are made aware that they’re part of Kutiman’s New York Times-approved master plan.
Haar’s documentary zeroes in on one of Kutiman’s unknowing YouTube contributors, as the musician pieces together user-generated samples for his 2014 project, “Thru You Too”. One of the first people Kutiman sets his sights on is a 38-year-old New Orleans nursing home caregiver with heartstopping pipes and a fiery red mane. Samantha Montgomery (who goes by the online handle Princess Shaw) is a singer-songwriter with only a handful of social media followers, whose powerful a cappella recordings and candid video diaries recount chilling tales of love gone awry and childhood abuse. “I never knew when the next blow was coming but that it was,” she confesses to those tuned into her YouTube channel. Both Kutiman and filmmaker Haar quickly take a liking to Princess and how she channels her pain into a wealth of gutsy, rousing recordings.
“I had talked it over with Kutiman and we agreed that I would make a film with different characters – not only singers but also musicians – and that I would travel to their hometowns to film them,” Haar explains when I meet all three in a downtown Toronto suite this week. “So on a trip to the U.S., I reached out to Princess, told her I was doing a film about YouTubers – musicians and singer-songwriters who upload their stuff to the site and hope something will happen. I continued my research and went to meet other characters in London and Washington, all great singers… But on my second trip to New Orleans, I felt as though hers was the only story I wanted to tell!”
Courtesy of Atzmor Productions
There’s no denying Princess has quite the story. Haar and his unobtrusive camera tag along during work shifts at the care facility, sparsely attended open-mic nights, a decisive meeting where she breaks up with her girlfriend of 8 years, her failed The Voice auditions and a pilgrimage to Atlanta, dubbed “the new Motown”, where she reconnects with long-lost cousins and bonds over their dysfunctional family history. Through it all, Princess keeps uploading new songs and stories to her YouTube channel.
“It’s just a way to get my songs out there and connect with people,” an ebullient Princess – who greets members of the press with heartfelt hugs – tells me when I ask whether she posted her music in the hopes of being scouted, à la Justin Bieber or Shawn Mendes. “I actually didn’t even know they first posted their stuff online – that’s dope sauce! But to be honest, it wasn’t about being ‘famous’. I have a lot of songs in my head, so for me, it’s a way to remember everything I’ve sung.”
Princess takes a totally unvarnished, no filter approach to putting it all out there – something that’s way more common among peers half her age. You’ll find none of the carefully airbrushed staginess of a social media star constructing a perfect life they feel #blessed to share with followers. “My hair is sometimes a mess, but who cares,” Princess asks aloud, before letting out a boisterous laugh. “In life, nobody looks perfect 24 hours a day. When I do my videos, I leave in the good, the bad and the ugly. I’m going to sit here in pajamas and sing for you – I mean, I’m at home! I want people to feel comfortable to connect like that.”
Courtesy of Atzmor Productions
It’s easy to see what Kutiman and Haar found so captivating about Princess. The singer-songwriter, who grew up listening to the likes of Etta James, Elton John, The Bee Gees and Billie Holiday, hatches heartfelt compositions that hinge on the lyrics. “Nowadays, you listen to a song and it’s the beat that catches you,” says Princess. “People are all about hooks repeated ad nauseam. They don’t listen to what’s being said: it could be “kill ‘em tomorrow, I’m’a blow you up!” I’m all about the lyrics.”
Twenty years ago, chances are we would never have heard of Princess. She simply wouldn’t have registered on the radars of music industry A&Rs. But thanks to YouTube, access to these raw talents is being democratized – something that has long fascinated Kutiman. “In Israel, we’re a little bit isolated,” he explains. “We’re not exposed to a lot of stuff going on around the world, so when the Internet arrived, I embraced it, because I love learning from seeing things. At the time, I started watching a lot of tutorials to improve my guitar and drum playing, and I opened them in different tabs. That’s when I started playing with the idea that maybe you could play them all together.”
At the time, he was already a big fan of DJ Shadow, RJD2, Girl Talk (and had seen the NFB doc RiP! A Remix Manifesto) and musicians who were exploring the creative possibilities of sampling, but it wasn’t something he had ever actively pursued. “I was sitting in my apartment and one day the idea came to me. I didn’t get up from my chair for 2 months. I didn’t even think about where this would go – what came after was just a total surprise to me.” Some people have challenged him on the legality of his mash-ups (which he merely posts on YouTube and doesn’t profit from), but it hasn’t been a major setback – which points to an increasing level of sophistication in addressing the matter in just a few short years. As for Princess, her take on the matter is unambiguous. “I mean, it’s a public platform, you put a song of yours on it… It’s fair game to me. If someone does something with it, uploads it and gets you all these views, why would you want to fight that person on it?”
Courtesy of Atzmor Productions
The ethical issue that’s sparked more debate regarding the documentary has to do with the filmmaker’s decision not to reveal his true motivations to Princess from the get-go – he knew she’d be included in Kutiman’s upcoming project, but chose not to disclose that’s how he came across her videos – in order to capture her life without interference and be there when she’d find out about being selected. To some documentary purists, that element of manipulation is downright sacrilegious. When I ask Haar about the criticisms being leveled at him, he circles back to his original intentions in making the doc.
“The music industry are gatekeepers of culture, and I wanted to show how two people at opposite ends of the world can collaborate without interference and make something beautiful”, he recalls, stressing that he wanted to be there to capture Princess coming to grips with this very unusual new reality of viral attention. “I always say that I went to film school in Israel and the most talented people in my class are no longer making films. It’s not enough to be super talented or consistent; you have to play by the rules. With this project, I realized there were other avenues; this gives people other options. All the musicians we see in the film are like Princess. They are amazing talents, but they don’t know the right people or how to market themselves… So this project has made me optimistic about the future.”
For the time being, this resolutely 21st century tale ends with Princess still working as a caregiver in New Orleans and posting her raw material to YouTube, even after the attention she has received from the Kutiman mash-up. Is that a victory? Should it be read as a blow? Or is that simply the nature of putting your art out there in the digital age? The key to that answer may lie in the Free Culture Movement quote that opens the film: “A free culture is one where everyone thinks of themselves as a voice in a huge choir, whose power and beauty comes from its size and diversity – where the many don’t bow to the few and the few aren’t responsible for the many.”
Princess appears to echo that sentiment, telling me she “aspires to keep on hitting the stage, posting to YouTube and singing – that simple. And live my life and be happy.” Odds are viewers will be inspired by such authentic displays of raw creativity. Who knows, that might spark new connections and collaborations, not unlike what she and Kutiman have enjoyed. As Princess would say, that in and of itself is pretty “dope sauce.”
Thru You Princess plays Saturday, September 19 at 10 a.m. at the Scotiabank Theatre, as part of TIFF
Michael-Oliver Harding is a culture writer living in Montreal. Follow him on Twitter.