Despite receiving a gala premiere and concert at the Tribeca Film Festival, “Mary J. Blige — The London Sessions” is essentially just a slightly gussied-up version of the types of “making of” featurettes that sometimes accompany deluxe album packages. Barely passing the 45-minute mark and shot in fuzzy black-and-white, the film is a purely promotional glimpse at the creation of Blige’s titular 13th studio album, which was released last fall to strong reviews and disappointing sales. Any time spent with Blige’s epochal voice and infectiously enthusiastic personality could never be unpleasant, but Sam Wrench’s featherweight docu struggles to justify its primetime showcase.
Taking place almost entirely in recording studios or the backseats of cabs, “The London Sessions” follows Blige for her brief stay in London, where she crossed paths with the likes of Sam Smith, Disclosure brothers Howard and Guy Lawrence, Emeli Sande and Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins in an attempt to shake up her sound. The film is most interesting when it simply rolls camera during the sessions — a scene of Blige, Smith and producer Jimmy Napes wordlessly vocalizing along to the track that would become “Nobody But You” provides a rare peephole into the modern pop songwriting process — and least interesting when it tries to gesture toward becoming anything more than a straightforward fly-on-the-wall snapshot. (A scene in which Blige sits down for a heart-to-heart with Amy Winehouse’s father Mitch is awkward, as neither seems to have too much to say to the other.)
R&B divas aren’t generally known for their wallflowerish reserve, but even within that cohort, Blige is notably heart-on-sleeve — her best album, 2005’s “The Breakthrough,” functions just as well as a surrogate therapy session as a dance-floor-filler — and her unabashed emotion occasionally gives this docu some weight. Breaking down in tears while working out a song with writer Sam Romans, Blige quickly apologizes: “I’m sorry, this is the first time I’ve cried … this week … in front of anyone.”
Given this sort of access to such an open-book performer, it’s all the more disappointing that the film never makes the most of the opportunity, or even attempts to contextualize her most recent work relative to her back catalog. (Nor do the songs themselves really get a chance to sing; the only time we see Blige do any full-throated belting for more than half a song comes over the closing credits.) There’s surely a fascinating film to be made about this eternally fascinating woman, who survived a tough childhood, bad relationships and addiction to become the greatest soul singer since Anita Baker, if not Aretha Franklin. But this surely isn’t it.