The battle for an RnB legend’s soul
The question, “What happened to D’Angelo?” remained unanswered years after he suddenly disappeared from public view in 2000. Dedicated fans would cling onto insider leaks and rumours floating across the internet without ever receiving a satisfying answer. In-between constant whispers of a new album being in the works came sporadic news stories about drugs, drink and car accidents. Bloated police mugshot pictures revealed someone completely different to the half-naked sex God seen in the “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” video. Then, out of the blue, 14 years after the releasing the “Voodoo” album, D’Angelo dropped “Black Messiah” – a new full length quickly hailed as a classic by many. Yet still, it didn’t answer the question everyone wanted an answer to: where the hell had he been for 14 years?
To put things into perspective, after the success of “Voodoo” at the turn of the century, D’Angelo stood on the edge of superstardom. His first album opened the door for the likes of Lauryn Hill (another who could speak on the art of disappearing), John Legend and Amy Winehouse to follow, while the harder-edged funk of “Voodoo” separated him from his peers. Artists of the calibre of D’Angelo remain a rarity, even in today’s overcrowded market. As close friend and collaborator Questlove says in Devil’s Pie his “gift only comes along once in a blue moon.” Presumptions were made that fame had ruined a special talent as there was little to suggest otherwise. But as Dutch filmmaker Carine Bijlsma’s documentary highlights, it turns out the reasons for his limited output is far more complicated.
Bijlsma gained access to the singer when he was performing a number of small European shows in 2012, agreeing to hold off on filming until the release of “Black Messiah” at the end of 2014. Following him on and off stage during the 2015 Second Coming Tour, Bijlsma attempts to dig beneath the elusive veneer of Michael “D’Angelo” Archer, letting him reflect on the sex symbol status that started to overtake his music after the “Untitled” video. Running at a brisk 75 minutes little time is spent focussing on the years before his disappearance, using snippets of archive footage intermixed with present day talking head interviews with Questlove and legendary tour manager, Alan Leeds.
“With this guy you can really feel it in your soul – but he tends to hide,” says Questlove, looking back on 20-year plus friendship. Devil’s Pie (taking its name from the lead single on his “Voodoo” album) isn’t so much a big reveal into the mind of D’Angelo, but more of a glimpse into the vulnerabilities and psychological frailty of an artist trying to deal with inner conflict and expectation. Questlove also goes on to say that his friend prefers to put up barriers to protect himself and as such Bijlsma is only able to find out as much as D’Angelo himself is willing to uncover.
While D’Angelo admits there is a limit to what he is prepared to discuss, he looks and sounds relaxed enough on camera speaking about some of the reasons for his disappearance. The presence of a female director adds an interesting angle, as it was the female gaze that he was unable to deal with in the wake of the “Untitled” video. It is suggested that he enjoyed the female attention for a while, but once his live shows became dominated by calls for him to strip off, the clash between his strong church upbringing in Virginia and his sex-symbol status overwhelmed him. Towards the end of the Voodoo tour he started to become more erratic and once it was wrapped he abandoned the spotlight completely.
Devil’s Pie throws up some intriguing questions about how musicians deal with the glare of fame and exchange of energy between fan and artist. Music offers positive transformation for some, while being overwhelming and intoxicating for others. D’Angelo speaks about the kinetic energy that comes with standing in-front of 30,000 people and commanding them to follow his every movement on stage. It’s a powerful connection that can create super-egos and consume anyone unable to deal with the intensity of receiving so much adoration. He says the comedown from such a high on stage can be mentally draining, especially as he sometimes finds it difficult to separate his on-stage D’Angelo persona from his off-stage reality.
Such a short run-time doesn’t allow enough room to cover ground fans will be eager to discover, with Bijlsma acting as a one-woman crew behind the scenes. As a result it produces a slightly rough-and-ready style that while not distracting, doesn’t offer much variance in-terms of form. Aside from Questlove and Leeds offering their thoughts, Bijlsma’s camera mostly observes D’Angelo on-stage or rehearsing with his band pre-tour. There are some nervous moments seen before each gig as Leeds anxiously hovers outside the dressing room for his client to appear ready to start the show – giving you the sense that although he has returned, his mental state remains on a knife edge.
It’s been over five years since the release of “Black Messiah” and fans will already be nervous about when D’Angelo will return with more music. Especially as this documentary was shot in 2015 and states at the end that he is currently working on his new album. His track record shows he’s a perfectionist that refuses to release substandard material, and combined with his mental fragility there’s every chance he could take an extended leave of absence once again. Towards the end of the film he ruminates on how he can find a direct connection with God without the interference of religion, still searching for a way to replenish what he gives out through his craft. He remains a troubled soul that only seems to find solace in his music – but remains unable to settle the conflict within himself.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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