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Although ostensibly a narrative documentary about a down-and-out singer who finds Internet fame, Presenting Princess Shaw can also be viewed as a religious fable. Every artist who has ever struggled to succeed relies on the simple hope that a person of influence is out there in the audience, and he or she appreciates what the artist does. It’s a reliance on faith not unlike hoping that God is watching and taking note of your suffering.
Actually, both situations apply to Samantha Montgomery, aka Princess Shaw, a poor New Orleans singer brimming with natural talent but little opportunity. The crowd-pleasing film by Ido Haar follows Shaw as she struggles to eke out a living with her art. She has a soulful voice and a knack for songwriting, but that isn’t enough. She lives in poverty, and when her car tires get stolen and her electricity gets shut off, only her music keeps her going. She finally gets on the bill of a concert with a packed house, only to see the audience head for the exits as she hits the stage.
Thank goodness for YouTube. The only respite from her ongoing struggles is when she takes to the Internet to post videos of her original songs—sung a capella—and messages to her presumed fans. But is anybody listening? At least one person is. Halfway across the world, an Israeli artist named Kutiman is turning those songs—and the songs of other Internet artists—into gold. He hears her voice, searches for clips of amateur background musicians, and edits them into a single take, turning Shaw’s unaccompanied melodies into complete pop masterpieces.
It all builds to one indelible moment: When Shaw first stumbles upon the video of her singing with a backup band, the joy that spreads across her face is irresistibly real. But those concerned with ethics in filmmaking might wonder how we got to that point. It’s quite a coincidence that Haar just happened to be filming Kutiman and Shaw at the same time, isn’t it? Turns out the director already knew what Kutiman was up to, and he told Shaw he was simply making a documentary about YouTube artists. Desperate for publicity, she agreed to be filmed, and Kutiman allowed her to go on struggling without mentioning that fame, albeit a fleeting one, was right around the corner.
His method should inspire a larger discussion about documentary ethics, but in this moment, Shaw can’t be bothered, and neither should we. Her evident joy at discovering that her art was appreciated—by anyone—is a thing to behold, and the film’s denouement, in which she travels to Israel to perform with a full band is a lovely daydream. You may leave the film concerned about both Shaw’s future and her past, but for 90 minutes or so, the present is glorious.
Presenting Princess Shaw opens today at Atlantic Plumbing Cinema.