Veteran musicvideo and concert-docu director Kevin Kerslake charts the short, hectic life of a high-flying celebrity disc jockey in “As I AM: The Life and Times of DJ AM,” an entertaining look at a talented turntablist who (for better or worse) pioneered his profession’s attainment of rock-star status in terms of glamour, media attention and economic renumeration. At the same time, there are some notable gaps left in the pic’s posthumous understanding of DJ AM, aka Adam Michael Goldstein, as its flashy surface doesn’t always help us to understand the pure artistic soul he’s depicted as here. Fest, tube and download programmers looking for music-focused features of current rather than strictly historical relevance will find this an easy pick.
Goldstein grew up amid marital discord — it was only in adulthood that he learned that his father wasn’t his biological one — in a wealthy New York family. Hearing Herbie Hancock’s 1983 scratching classic “Rockit” at age 10, he began developing a lifelong obsession with beats. When his parents divorced, he moved with his mom to Los Angeles, falling in with a fast crowd of Hollywood raver brats whose heavy drug use only heightened his status as a “suicidal mess.” At age 16, he was sent to a rehab boot camp, where he was later indicted and dismissed for excessive abuse of young enrollees.
Eventually, however, he did manage to stop using. His budding DJ career began to take off (particularly once gastric bypass surgery rendered this perpetual “fat kid” fashionably slim), almost immediately attracting the amorous attentions of Nicole Richie, then at the height of her fame as co-star of “The Simple Life” with Paris Hilton. Their two-year relationship helped make Goldstein exceptionally famous in a profession that had seldom hitherto attracted more than insider awareness. His club gigs became A-list crowd magnets; he scored the first-ever $1 million DJ contract at a casino in Las Vegas, as well as numerous lucrative endorsement deals and gigs spinning at private parties for the likes of Madonna and Tom Cruise. He even had guest appearances as himself on “Entourage” and in “Iron Man 2,” schooling Robert Downey Jr. on turntable techniques.
Yet his troubled past continued to be a factor, sometimes by choice. As a sobriety crusader, he hosted the MTV reality series “Gone Too Far,” in which he played the on-camera celebrity interventionist trying to save various young people from addiction. Goldstein himself was thrown for a serious loop when he and Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker were the only people out of six to survive a 2008 plane crash. He was severely burned, and his resulting need for painkillers, his incessant travel despite a new terror of flying, and an ensuing relapse crisis left him dead at 36.
Alongside the subject’s motormouthed musings in archival interviews, the principal storytellers here are his colleagues, who found him a generous collaborator and an artistic inspiration. AM played a significant role in popularizing the mash-up form, in which pre-existing tracks are combined to greatly altered, often witty effect. (It is noted that no one else could have gotten away with folding Oasis’ “Wonderwall” and the “Rent” original cast recording into a dance mix.) His celebrity drove up the asking prices for all name DJs. It is agreed, however, that he made a fatal mistake in ignoring the toll of his post-traumatic stress after the crash by jumping right back into a punishing schedule of work commitments.
While various commenters (including AM himself) note that he was frequently in but not really of the glitzy Hollywood scene, that is nonetheless where we mostly see him here. There’s a certain disconnect between the pic’s portrait of the subject as a pure artist and the milieu of big money, tabloid favorites, paparazzi, boob jobs and VIP lounges whose embrace made him a star. It would help if we got a stronger sense of his off-camera personal life, but neither Richie nor any other girlfriend is interviewed.
Kerslake manages to avoid an “E! Hollywood True Story” feel despite a great deal of material that would fit perfectly into such a context. Still, the docu’s hyperactive editing and visuals eventually grow a tad monotonous, undercutting some of this life story’s poignancy. A large quantity of video footage blown up for the bigscreen will look better in home-formats play.
Film Review: 'As I AM: The Life and Times of DJ AM'
Reviewed at Hot Docs Film Festival (Next), Toronto, April 26, 2015. (Also in Tribeca Film Festival — Spotlight.) Running time: 101 MIN.
(Documentary) A Manifest and Integral Entertainment Group presentation in association with the DJ AM Memorial Fund and MusiCares of a Mommis production. (Sales: Traction Media, Beverly Hills.) Produced by Robert Bruce, Dan Franklin, Kevin Kerslake, Joel Marcus. Executive producers, Andrea Gross, Todd Andrew Alstrup, Sacha Cohen, Balthazar Getty, Noel Lohr, Cheryl Horner Sirulnick. Co-producers, John Beug, Kate Franklin, Scott Pascucci, Kevin Scott, Jonathan Shecter.
Directed, written by Kevin Kerslake. Camera (color, HD), Kerslake; editor, Joel Marcus; animation, Pete Bishop; sound, Kerslake; supervising sound editors, Joel Marcus, D. Chris Smith; re-recording mixer, Smith; visual effects, Yann Mallard.
Steve Aoki, A-Trak, Ben Baller, Jason Bentley, Seth Binzer, Diplo, Jon Favreau, Andrea Gross, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Mix Master Mike, Paul Oakenfold, Rockaton, Mark Ronson, Pasquale Rotella, DJ Vice, Z-Trip.