REVIEW: Presenting Princess Shaw [2016]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: NR | Runtime: 80 minutes | Release Date: March 31st, 2016 (Israel)
Studio: First Hand Films / Magnolia Pictures
Director(s): Ido Haar
Writer(s): Ido Haar

“Why am I going in the same direction with no direction?”

Even though Presenting Princess Shaw isn’t a film about filmmaking, you can’t help wondering about the logistics of its creation considering director Ido Haar is listed as the project’s sole cinematographer. The story of Princess (Samantha Montgomery) and Kutiman (Ophir Kutiel) focuses on music and the internet creating a community of disparate strangers miles away from one another with an ever-present potential for collaboration between them. We watch Samantha live her life in New Orleans as a nurse attending open mic nights while curating a deeply personal YouTube diary to push her drive to be heard. We also meet Kutiman in Israel tirelessly scouring the web for clips, melodies, and notes he can merge into original compositions. Their individual paths gradually move towards an inspirationally powerful collision.

But how does it work? Is everything cut in real time? These were the questions rifling through my mind despite the story of music bringing people together onscreen. The truth is that Haar was working on a documentary about Kutiman and his latest pastiche project entitled Thru You Too. There were many different artists and vocalists involuntarily included with Samantha being just one. So Haar knew what his subject had done, knew when the songs would be published to YouTube for the world to see, and decided to get on a plane to talk with as many of Kutiman’s collaborators—unaware of what was happening with their clips—as he could. He ultimately spoke with a few of these people, but found he couldn’t quite shake Princess Shaw.

In order to keep his motives unknown, however, he told Samantha he was simply making a film about YouTubers trying to make it to the big time. She agreed to participate and the rest is history because it isn’t long before we realize what it was about her that drew Haar in. Samantha’s warmth and compassion is evident early on as she’s seen working in a nursing home and assisting its patients. We enjoy her infectious smile as she and friends dance in the halls. We feel inspired by her singing to the residents and quickly find ourselves chomping at the bit to witness the foreshadowed reveal of her discovering what Kutiman has done to turn her a cappella original into a heavily-produced single worthy of radio play.

This isn’t the whole story, though. Haar splices brief vignettes of Kutiman in Tel Aviv working at his computer to enhance “Give It Up” (the song that went viral) because it keeps the end game in sight and ratchets up anticipation, but the film has ceased being about the composer. Rather than be Samantha on a journey of musical success with his assistance we realize her adventure is actually about self-reflection and loneliness in an age of ubiquity. Phone calls with Mom take on new meaning when tales of abuse are exposed via candid conversations and online confessionals as the struggle of surviving day-to-day with painful memories, lost loves, and bad luck rearing its head to test her resolve. Tears are shed, but Samantha never stops moving forward.

Haar couldn’t be with her the entire time so he relies on Samantha’s YouTube videos to flesh out the gaps between his targeted key moments of possible upheaval. He films her as she visits family in Atlanta to check out its music scene. He’s by her side as she tries out for “The Voice”. And he’s there when she notices an uptick in YouTube comments and fans pointing her in the direction of Kutiman’s remix. There’s nothing like genuine shock caused by an ecstatic revelation to get your blood pumping and emotions running wild. Seeing Samantha’s face as recognition of her voice against the music clicks is one of the year’s most memorable cinematic moments. Her tear-filled glee and awe in sharing it with family is pure joy.

What sets Kutiman apart from someone like Girl Talk who has been doing similar things with music since 2002 is that the former uses the work of unknowns. He’s facilitating exposure for amateur artists as a springboard; his music leads viewers to those he has sampled and people who once believed they were alone and struggling with at most 80-subscribers are overnight international sensations. To Samantha’s credit this astronomical crescendo in popularity never goes to her head. She remains humble and thankful, seeing this newfound success as an opportunity to enjoy no matter what comes next. Will she eventually return home and continue working as a nurse or will someone sign her to a record contract? It honestly doesn’t matter. Her dream has already come true.

How a documentary about the genesis of an artist’s album can evolve into a narrative about another’s perseverance with great things happening to great people is anyone’s guess, but here it is. Samantha is intriguing in her own right as someone who endured so much at a young age—protecting her little sister when most children can’t comprehend the concept of having to do so—and came out as kind-hearted and radiant with life as she did. The music was always a cathartic method to exorcise her demons. She wanted it to grow into more, but was satisfied with singing to strangers and listening to strangers and becoming part of a healthy, creative community worthy of her embrace. The rest couldn’t have happened to a more deserving soul.

[1] Samantha Montgomery in PRESENTING PRINCESS SHAW, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
[2] Samantha Montgomery and Kutiman in PRESENTING PRINCESS SHAW, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
[3] Kutiman in PRESENTING PRINCESS SHAW, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

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