Filmmaker Vanessa Roth has made a career out of profiling everyday men and women whose stories resonate and inspire far beyond the subject’s smaller-scale origins. One of her earliest works as a producer was on the 2007 Oscar-winning documentary shot Freeheld, concerning the push to change the policy concerning domestic partners being allowed to receive a work-related pension after their partner dies. The short was even adapted into a feature film in 2015. As a director, Roth has profiled middle school student council races in The Third Tuesday in October (2006); the lives of teachers in American Teacher (2011); and recently helmed the National Geographic Channel’s doc series “Impact with Gal Gadot,” which focused on six women who made a remarkable impact on the environment.
But her latest feature finds Roth stepping out of her comfort zone, both because it’s a music documentary and because it centers on one of the biggest singing stars on the planet, Mary J. Blige, and her breakthrough confessional album My Life, a work that covered the artist’s battles with abuse, depression and addiction, and forged a profound and enduring connection with millions of fans around the globe. In the film, the singer, producer and actor reveals the demons and blessings that inspired the record and propelled her from the soul-crushing world of New York’s housing projects to international stardom.
I had the chance to chat with Roth recently about the project and the many ways to tackle an album that means so much to so many. Please enjoy…
You’ve never tackled a music documentary before this, although this is certainly a lot more than just that. It’s about a journey this relatively young woman took in discovering herself and the type of music she wanted to make from that point forward. Did seeing that part of the story help you focus on what the film was going to be about and the structure it would take?
Yes, we definitely went into the film with that, the idea that it would be this wonderful, exciting music doc with all of the music doc features to it, with concert footage and archival footage. But I think why Mary came to me to do this was that the whole time it’s this love letter to herself and her collaborators and her fans from that very vulnerable moment more than 25 years ago, and to follow that evolution of Mary as a young child and that inner-part of Mary—she calls it Little Mary—that she’s still very protective of. From the beginning, that’s what we wanted it to be about.
How did you two connect?
I was approached by Mary and her team, including producer Tara Long, who I’d also been working on [“Impact with Gal Gadot”] about remarkable women whose narratives we hadn’t heard, and Tara brought me in to meet Mary, and she wanted that same sensibility of giving voice to things we sometimes don’t talk about. And when I met with Mary, it felt like the right kind of connection.
Was the My Life album a thing in your life 25 years ago? Was this your first deep dive into it?
It was definitely my first deep dive into it, but I certainly knew of the album. I’m about the same age as Mary, but I’ve definitely had different life experiences and my relationship to the music is absolutely different than a fan who knows every single word. But the thing I try to do in my docs is just listen and learn, so this was a huge education for me. I think in some ways, that made it nice because I was open to absorbing everything and making sure that it stayed focused on the making of this one album, without too much other stuff that I was trying to get in. I’ve grown such an appreciation for the album and every lyric and every song and all the samples and stories.
Mary still seems hesitant to talk about certain aspects of her childhood, although she’s very open about the period when this album was being made, when she was still going through some pretty dark things. I’m wondering, when you’re in a situation where someone is dealing with trauma or a painful situation from their past, how do you find the right balance on how much you should push them to be forthcoming about setting the record straight, or do you leave that up to them?
For me, I’m very collaborative and feel that people who are willing and open to sharing their lives with the world, they are the true experts on their own lives, and I respect boundaries and think that Mary wasn’t different in that way. She’s an executive producer on the film and she wanted to tell the stories. But there are certain places in the film, like when she talks about being molested, and then she’s saying “And so many other things that happened to me that I’m not going to talk about,” and I wanted that in the film because, although she’s a public figure, she still has the right to privacy and moments that she does not need to share with everyone, and that’s okay. That’s a good lesson for all of us, to be honest, in a time when people tend to overshare. If it’s healing to share, that’s great, but I think it’s important to her to have boundaries that are respected, and at the same time, I think we have a really emotionally open film where we get a lot from her. Her music is how she tells all through.
I’m a huge fan of music docs about a particular album that basically go song by song, which you do to a degree. How did you decide to approach each song, because you give a slightly different treatment to each one—some are about how one was written and produced, some are about how they came to life in a live setting, some are about the fan reaction to it.
That’s a good question because that was one of the questions in editing, because there could have been a film where we could have done a discography, song-by-song and really unpack everything for each one. And she did something like that for a reminiscence of the album itself, which would have been amazing, but we also wanted to tell that core emotional-evolution story, so we go through her life, when a song captures what the storytelling is at that time, we bring in that song. We introduce the “My Life” song at the very beginning of the movie, when we bring up “Everybody Loves the Sunshine,” [the Roy Ayers Ubiquity song that is sampled in Blige’s song], so we tried to do a mix of when that sample was important to her, and we tried to do a mix of when was the sample important to her because every single sample she uses on the My Life album actually has a very personal reason for being in it. It wasn’t only a musical reason; it was because every song meant something to her, and she used them in the writing she did.
Are there lessons from this journey that you think people can emulate? Should people who have issues weighing on them, should they find a creative or artistic outlet the way Mary did? Is that a message here?
Yeah, I think so. Mary says at one point, “You have to feel it to heal,” and what’s lucky for her and other artists is that they have a way to express that pain and get that out, and by doing that, they connect with someone else and let them know that they are not alone. Her fans said that to her when she wrote that album. She thought she was writing that for herself, but they said, “No, me too. I feel this way.” For people who aren’t writers, it’s finding something else, some other way to express themselves. It’s okay to feel thing and feel pain, that’s part of life. Trauma doesn’t just go away; you can’t just be okay. It’s going to take that excavation, and Mary has the gift of excavating by way of writing and performing, and it’s a cathartic experience.
One thing that was really moving to me [as part of this film] was when we filmed a fan listening party, and if this doesn’t already exist, this could be a whole new type of therapy, being put together with a group of people who love the same album—that became a therapy session, that moment with all of us together listening to this album. Everyone started sharing things about their own life, using the album as a base.
Were there any surprises about Mary that you discovered in this process, and how did working with her change you?
We start the movie off with the idea that she was so successful right off the bat, but from the very beginning, she didn’t feel successful inside, and she talks about the way she measures success is how she feels inside not everything else. How do you love yourself and accept what other people see in you? That’s really hard to do and celebrate and let out, and that was the part of her, as this iconic figure, that to hear about that internal fight that goes on and learn how to trust yourself—she feels it solidly now, but at the time, that was so hard.
Vanessa, thank you so much and best of luck with the film.
Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!