Pass The Popcorn: 'As I Am: The Life & Times Of DJ AM' Premieres At Tribeca Film Festival [Review]
Still in the limelight of its Tribeca Film Festival premiere, As I AM: The Life And Times of DJ AM is an immediate record-scratching, heart-wrenching success. Directed by Kevin Kerslake, the feature-length documentary tells the story of Adam Goldstein, a Philadelia-born, California-raised DJ who beat back drug addiction and survived the unthinkable, rising to global fame and fortune as DJ AM .
Kerslake wastes no time as the film opens, thrusting his audience directly into a breakneck retelling of AM's earliest days. We learn that Goldstein watched as his family fell apart while still at a tender age, and that by the time he began toying around with a friend's set of turntables he had already lost his father, lost control of a drug habit, survived an abusive treatment program and contemplated suicide (which he later attempted--unsuccessfully). His addictions remained even as his DJ skills grew and the turntablist found himself playing all-night gigs in dingy Los Angeles clubs, pocketing $40, a gram of cocaine and a few beers as pay. AM showed huge potential--his friends remember his fiery creativity and recall his almost robotic focus during practice. But the drug habit he began during those years became his doomsday clock; even the brightest stars get swallowed by black holes.
But As I Am, is at least partly the story of one DJ's escape from the black hole. As it approcahes the present, the doc zooms in close on Goldstein's treatment and sobriety, and a chorus of interview subjects--including Jazzy Jeff, Diplo and Steve Aoki--sing his praises as an artist in recovery who poured everything into the music. It's here, in the film's mid-section, where Kerslake hits his stride. As clips of neon-drenched LA and Vegas parties come at the viewer in waves, we see AM bouncing from one turntable to another, cutting up records that no one else dared to even touch. Goldstein--whose own voice, culled from AA meeting tapes and radio interviews, narrates much of the film--develops on screen into a runaway success, a DJ who became an A-lister with million dollar contracts and mountains of respect.
As I AM boomerangs between these joyous scenes and the looming specter of addiction; time and time again we're jerked from watching Goldstein spin his heart out and seeing him quiver, in fear or a relapse. The abrupt highs and lows reflect the reality of AM's life, and rather than build him up as an artistic Jekyll and then later reveal the addict Hyde in a more conventional narrative arc, Kerslake's film chops up his ecstasy and pain, mixing it like one of the mash-ups DJ AM was known for. This happens again and again, almost like clockwork, making it easy to feel lost. These disorienting swings can feel like awkward filmmaking, but they also feel true and convey at least a little of the fast-motion pendulum that was AM's life.
No punches are pulled and near its close, As I Am bombards listeners with images of burned skin following Goldstein's 2008 plane crash. We see many of his friends and family come to the brink of tears, remembering the addiction and, later, PTSD that made AM doubt everything about his success and finally, let go. "Without his sobriety, there is no DJ AM," we hear as the film builds toward his tragic and deadly overdose.
As a music documentary with a complicated subject whose life offers no easy happy ending, As I Am succeeds in stressing the perils of addiction, the healing power of music and the basic need for friendship. Fans of DJing will relish in the footage of a young Goldstein honing his craft (it's a shame Kerslake didn't include more) and those who know the demon that is addiction will recognize the pain of AM and those who tried, but failed, to save him. As I Am is a vivid and disturbing portrait of music's power and human weakness. This Okayplayer strongly recommends it.