It’s also a departure from the vast majority of music documentaries we’ve seen over the past decade or so: behind-the-scenes looks at artists including Billie Eilish, J. Balvin, Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Justin Bieber. (The recent P!nk documentary is so singularly celebratory, it especially feels like an infomercial.) These are films that promise intimate portraits of performers we love and perhaps think we even “know,” thanks to the social media connections they methodically cultivate with their fans. But while such movies can be entertaining and even eye-opening, they’re not exactly warts-and-all depictions. There’s still a brand to protect, a record label to serve as ultimate gatekeeper. There’s a structure to them that becomes formulaic, even predictable: the grind of the tour, the wacky backstage antics, and maybe a physical ailment or personal setback that provides an obstacle on the way to The Big Concert at the end.
“Moby Doc,” which Moby (real name Richard Melville Hall) co-wrote with Bralver, takes all those familiar storytelling notions, tears them to shreds, and tosses them out the window. Sure, Moby takes us back to the beginning, which helps us understand both his love of music and his animal rights work, the two driving forces of his life. But he does it with bracing candor, almost a cathartic drive to expose his demons. He also does it with fuzzy finger puppets, Sharpie cartoons, and intentionally simplistic dioramas adorned with colorful stickers. Despite its frequently dark content, “Moby Doc” often carries the sweetly childlike vibe of a Michel Gondry movie in the eclectic and knowingly rough-hewn way it approaches emotionally complicated subject matter. Early on, Moby gathers a few friends to act out some of the more harrowing moments of his youth—a troupe he dubs “The Childhood Trauma Re-Enactment Players”—with Moby himself wearing a beret, holding a riding crop and offering directions such as: “A little more … sadness.”
An only child growing up in Harlem in the late 1960s, Moby endured anger and neglect from an early age. He recalls screaming matches between his parents, leading to his alcoholic father’s fatal drunk-driving crash. His mother, a widow at 23, moved the two of them to the affluent enclave of Darien, Connecticut, where he was ashamed of his poverty. Within this early instability, Moby says in one of the movie’s many staged therapy sessions, “Music saved me.” (One of the amusing details during these scenes is a reaction shot of the therapist, played by singer-songwriter Julie Mintz, stifling a yawn as he drones on about his success.) A wealth of archival footage reveals the musician’s many looks and styles over the years—when he had hair but didn’t have glasses, when he played punk rock but was gravitating toward EDM. Given the film’s surreal tone, it only makes sense that David Lynch shows up to talk about his longtime friendship with Moby, which dates to the musician’s remix of Angelo Badalamenti’s Laura Palmer theme from “Twin Peaks” for his first huge hit, “Go.” Lynch also offers this vivid bit of wisdom in explaining Moby’s desire to dig deep and understand himself: “Negativity begins to lift away. Hate, anger, fear, all these things start to lift. The suffocating rubber clown suit of negativity dissolving and pure gold coming in from within.”
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