Less a life/career-spanning documentary biopic and more focusing on the work of art that set the stage for the career that followed, director Vanessa Roth’s Mary J Blige’s My Life narrows its scope on the life moments and musical choices that led to the creation of one of the great confessional albums of all time, 1994’s My Life by Mary J Blige, which we see the singer celebrate at a 25th anniversary event, during which she performs the album live in its entirety.
Although My Life was her second album (after the equally influential What’s the 411?, which broke ground on a sonic level by blending hip-hop and soul music in new ways), Blige pushed herself to hit new levels of honesty for this record, by discussing her childhood and adult battles with sexual abuse, depression, and addiction, as well as the resulting physical and emotional trauma from growing up in a New York housing project. Through interviews with family members, friends, admirers, and those who helped her shape this album, the doc goes song by song through the project and turns into an in-depth look at the crafting of music that is both deeply personal and speaks to the millions who have gone through similar experiences. One of the most moving testimonials in the film involves a group of fans sitting in a room listening to the album and discussing the impact certain songs had on their lives, leading to a great many tears in the process.
Blige never stopped being open and honest in her records after My Life, but there is something about seeing it done for the first time that almost makes you wonder why so few musicians have done something similar. Blige indicates in one of her interviews that it might take too much out of a weaker person to be so honest in their art, and there’s certainly a truth to that. The insights provided by regular Blige producer Sean “Diddy” Combs, as well as singer Alicia Keys and actress/friend Taraji P. Henson, are sweet but less significant than testimonials from family who were there in her formative years, or from Blige herself, who is incredibly open about most of the pain that formed who she was at the time she recorded My Life—the resulting music is sometimes painfully close to what inspired it.
The only downside to such a compact documentary is that you want to hear more of the music, instead of just fragments and snippets of the recordings or live performances. I wish director Roth had let songs play out a bit more, even if it meant the film ran 15-20 minutes longer. It’s a small complaint, but being allowed to bask in this music is also kind of the point of a documentary like this. Still, what’s here is golden, emotionally raw, and deeply moving, and if this album meant anything to you upon its release, it’s a lovely reminder how building a connection through music is unlike anything else.
The film begins streaming Friday via Amazon Prime Video.
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