Review by Justin Goodman
Where’s the line between a music video and a short film? “Music,” a musicophile might say, ignoring the likes of Fantasia that is music without dialogue and yet known as a film. “Narrative,” an Oscars judge would counter, except one look at the famous “Take On Me” music video has more story than Richard Linklater’s 1991 classic Slacker. The dedicatory documentary of the late DJ AM, As I Am: The Life and Times of DJ AM, fits somewhere in between, probably because it is the debut film of the music video director Kevin Kerslake. Suffused with energy and pathos, flitting Ritalin-less between sexy and serious, As I Am’s piecemeal story of a pre-internet underground hero mixes public persona and private life to the same degree Adam Michael Goldstein (DJ AM) did by once dressing up in Thomas Bangalter’s Daft Punk costume and performing a Daft Punk set list for 40 minutes before revealing himself.
When you look under the mask of the troll, you might find a suffering individual just as Lindy West did in February of last year. This is no less true of Adam Michael Goldstein who grew up with his single mother after his father came out of the closet, shortly followed by his death from HIV. Goldstein was a modern-day Job, in fact: brought to the dubious rehab center Straight, Inc at 16, he attempted suicide in 2003 only to have the gun fail, surviving a plane crash with Travis Barker in 2008 only to eventual succumb to PTSD-induced addiction a year later. Kerslake’s perspective is nothing like the Coen brother’s A Serious Man though. Very little is bemoaning, almost none of it pity, and it’s hard to not see—learning about him through MTV videos, E! interviews, and his friends—this does justice to Goldstein’s human fear and superhuman dedication.
But parting with DJ AM—there’s an exorcism effect to the video clips featuring him—is actually part of a larger farewell, hinted at by regular before and after dynamic that is As I Am’s presentation. Not just before and after Straight, Inc, but also before and After the Deejaying program Serato, or before and after the Internet helped popularize the underground. DJ AM is equivalent to late ‘90s and early 2000s culture. Today rap-rock is largely ignored (Limp Bizkit and Crazy Town, which AM was in), skating is respected (one of the dated references has a friend calling AM the “Tony Hawk of Deejaying”), and the idea that the “DJ was digital shaman” is hard to fathom in a world where DJs are staples of dance clubs. DJ AM comes across as foreshadowing all this, which is why As I Am: The Life and Times comes across as surface: For all the testimony about his greatness, there’s this focus on his symbolic presence over his human presence.
You can’t blame Kerslake since his sources are unreliable celebrity gossip rags with cockroach like immunities, which are partially blamed as perpetuators of “the cult of celebrity” that killed Goldstein. It created “yes men,” several of his friends say. So it ends up that the energy and direction that Kerslake brings to AM’s memorial actually comes to explain music videos instead of DJ AM. Instead of the music defining the presentation, the presentation defines the music; all the while we’re left to wonder what’s left of the artist who is being represented. Among the praises for Goldstein’s greatness as an individual and businessman, perhaps the most honest reflection is when one of his friends rhetorically pleas to Goldstein, “please remember you’re a drunk.” Yes, he may have popularized mash-up music and “took pay scales for DJs to the next level,” but no amount of pay scale will make Job’s suffering any less bearable.
“As I am, I’m not enough,” Adam Michael Goldstein said. An avid advocate of AA and sobriety, every interview he had he comes across as a humble struggle. He was a faithful friend and person, down to his last days working with addicts on Dr. Drew’s Gone Too Far, who didn’t want to disappoint anyone by taking a break. Especially, after the plane crash. But his humility is not the problem with As I Am: The Life and Times of DJ AM. The problem is that Kerslake gives into the ‘90s obsession with image and its spawn, celebrity gossip, reflecting on a persona with few (if no) tears attached instead of the person behind the Bangalter mask. Much of As I Am flitters between barely clad women dancing to the point that a woman’s nipple pops into view (NSFW for the prudish); it’s a lengthy music video with all the gloss and none of the glow, punctuated by the equally weighty flitting of digital butterfly wings into darkness.