Devil’s Pie, a new documentary which premiered at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, starts and ends with a simple question: “what happened to D’Angelo?” But does the film — or D’Angelo himself — ever really truly answer the question?
“I’m too real for that shit,” D’Angelo declares.
He’s talking about separating his private self from the public one. Michael Archer from D’Angelo. Grappling with becoming a superstar, a sex symbol, and an acclaimed musician all at once, while feeling like his art became the collateral damage of that attention.
The quote comes from a scene in Devil’s Pie: D’Angelo, the forthcoming documentary directed by Dutch filmmaker Carine Bijlsma, which premiered at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival in New York on Saturday (April 27). In it, D’Angelo is parsing the once blurred parameters of his personal and professional persona. He isn’t so much making a triumphant return to the scene, but inching his way closer to its truth. The documentary attempts to capture this, as it chronicles the 14-year hiatus that marked the period between his disappearance, after the release of Voodoo in 2000, and his resurgence. In 2014, D’Angelo and the Vanguard released Black Messiah and, to both critics’ and fans’ acclaim, the album doubled as the Second Coming of one.
The mystical musician made his return. Then disappeared again. The documentary covers that interim — from the substance abuse to the arrest, the traumatic car accident, and the deaths of loved ones — amidst moments on and off stage during his 2015 The Second Coming Tour. There are rare interviews with him, close collaborators like Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson from The Roots, other famous friends like Dave Chappelle, management, and archival footage from his life before the limelight. Devil’s Pie didn’t miss the mark, but a key piece to the D’Angelo puzzle still felt palpably missing.
The film is more of a portrait than an unveiling, the latter being what most would probably prefer to see of the aloof Grammy Award-winner. Here, he doesn’t appear to be at his most vulnerable, but the doc subtly asserts that we may never see him in that way. In the past, D’Angelo had been famous long enough to foster familiarity and discomfort under a lens. His departure is reminiscent of that of his peer Lauryn Hill, who also opted out of fame at the height of hers. Since his departure, return, and retreat, there has been a public vested interested in him that’s remained constant.
When a celebrity dies his or her’s death sparks a newfound interest. But D’Angelo cheated death and lived to not talk about it.
Recently, several celebrity documentaries present the balanced tightrope walk between access and discretion, like HBO’s forthcoming Muhammad Ali doc, What’s My Name — which also premiered at Tribeca Film Festival — and Beyoncé’s Netflix Coachella concert doc Homecoming. Devil’s Pie opts for the open-window-view of the prolific artist’s private life — without the storytelling to string together the bits and pieces viewers are allowed to see.
Aside from the archival and performance footage, the film was shot by Bijlsma herself, and has been packaged as D’Angelo “letting us into his world.” But as close as a camera can get, access can still feel like an expectation rather than a reality. Is it, by virtue, even possible to get “full access”? “Unprecedented access” doesn’t mean full access, it just means more access than before. It isn’t that the director wasn’t capable of fully capturing and telling D’Angelo’s story, but more of a possibility that this type of portrait can glean that there’s no such thing as full access to a public figure, especially when it comes to an artist like D’Angelo.
Devil’s Pie is more of a look at what he’s allowing us to see, which isn’t much. After all, as said in the film, “he tends to hide.” The director may have been let into his world, but how does the one at the doorway and behind the lens let us in behind them?
At one point in the film, Questlove recalls what happened after he canceled the remainder of his comeback tour, saying his words were, “I can not get over my fear.” D’Angelo goes on to recall a moment during a performance where he, for the first time, felt the perversion of power — and instantly accepted that he did not want that much control.
In her essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” feminist scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak examined colonial power dynamics and the voiced history of the oppressed and the unreadability that accompanies a subject’s silence, the lack of historical documentation on their thoughts, lives, and how personal history becomes something that is projected on to, investigated and examined. While forged narratives drown out the subject’s voice, Spivak suggests we simply let them speak for themselves. “Subaltern is not just a classy word for “oppressed,” for [the] Other, for somebody who’s not getting a piece of the pie,” she writes. “They’re within the hegemonic discourse, wanting a piece of the pie, and not being allowed, so let them speak.”
Historian Fernando Coronil said that his goal as an investigator must be “to listen to the subaltern subjects, and to interpret what I hear, and to engage them and interact with their voices. We cannot ascend to a position of dominance over the voice, subjugating its words to the meanings we desire to attribute to them…The power to narrate somebody’s story is a heavy task, and we must be cautious and aware of the complications involved.” bell hooks expands on this in “Marginality as a Site of Resistance,” saying that in order to truly communicate the subject’s voice, the tasked “expert” can’t think of themselves as one. And where Coronil’s theory in telling someone’s story comes with power, hooks explores how that power can further silence. “No need to hear your voice,” she writes, adding, “only tell me about your pain. I want to know your story. And then I will tell it back to you in a new way. Tell it back to you in such a way that it has become mine, my own. Re-writing you, I write myself anew. I am still author.”
In Devil’s Pie, D’Angelo finally speaks his piece. There is earnest, previously unseen footage of D’Angelo and Questlove in the studio during the Voodoo era, sharing instant reflections of turning 25. But some of the more telling moments are when he isn’t speaking at all. Or when the camera faces front just capturing him singing soul songs and church hymns to himself. Or during the most intimate moments of all — when he’s getting his hair done. The hyperfocused shots showing his combed out fro being transformed into slender braids right before a show.
Here the mechanics of access are ever apparent. The exchange of power and trust between the one granting access and the one being endowed with it.
D’Angelo came to fame during an era where visibility and candidness weren’t requisite to celebrity. He negotiated popularity with privacy. He offered glints of his personal life, absent from social media, Hollywood, and the present music industry, with scant substantial interviews detailing the dynamics of where he is and where he’s going in life and in music. But much of what he withheld seemed to be less by choice and more by nature. He didn’t surrender his private life to fame and it became the distinctive mark of his kind of celebrity.
When it comes to the famous, fans and critics view access as a prerequisite, not a privilege. They demand new music from their favorite artists, pry for details about their private lives, and those documenting the art expect more access than those just consuming it. Sometimes the demands transcend music and turn into violence in many forms, and for the overexposed, disappearing, and disengaging might be the safer solution.
The idea of having full access to a public figure seems more relative than realistic, and Devil’s Pie reasserts this. Maybe it’s less of a question as to whether the film succeeds in clearing out the pathway that leads to the subject in their purest form and more about the possibility that this daunting task may not be doable. With bio-docs, it’s a grand ask with unrealistic expectations.
Toward the end, the film makes a grand revelation; D’Angelo’s working on a fourth album.
That alone is a promise of his futurity in front of the public eye. People tune out when they don’t see what they’re looking for, but it’s almost guaranteed we will continue watching him. At one point in the doc, D’Angelo asks, seemingly to himself, “how do you get past the ritual… and just get to the source?” Maybe the first step is turning the camera on.
The question Bijlsma said she asked herself before setting out on a quest to find and film him was, “what happened to D’Angelo?” The film, in essence, starts and ends with a question. But does D’Angelo really answer it?