The astounding and thoroughly inspirational account of an artistic collaboration between an Israeli remix artist and an obscure, yet undeniably talented New Orleans-based vocalist he discovered half a world away, “Presenting Princess Shaw” puts talk-show fairy godmothers Ellen or Oprah to shame. Nothing fancy in terms of technique, yet no cinch to pull off either, considering that a director profiling rural-kibbutz-based Kutiman had to track down and document self-named singer Princess Shaw back when her YouTube videos were earning just double-digit traffic, this uplifting musical Cinderella story should further boost its subjects’ well-deserved fame, while achieving that rare feat of capturing the viral video phenomenon from the inside.
Given the Disney-worthy trajectory her life takes over the course of Ido Haar’s tight, 80-minute documentary, it’s fitting that 39-year-old Samantha Montgomery picked “Princess” as her stage name. In lieu of an “I want” song (which it’s easy to imagine an enterprising off-Broadway composer writing for her down the road), the fruit-punch-coiffed Montgomery tells the camera, “I just want to get on TV and let somebody see me,” while waiting in line for an audition to appear on “The Voice” at the local convention center.
These days, one wonders how many other potential contestants arrive with their own documentary crew in tow. In Montgomery’s case, what the reality-TV skein’s casting team misses is an untrained but naturally talented soul sista with a big heart and an even bigger voice — the sort of chanteusy who typically ends up relegated to backup for Barbie-shaped Beyonce types, even if their pipes are better suited to sing lead. Still, determined to be discovered, Montgomery writes her own music and posts a cappella clips online hoping that someone might contact her about producing music for her tracks, a technique that begs the question: If a beat drops in the forest of countless YouTube content, is there a sound?
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Permission is but a quaint 20th-century notion for an artist like Kutiman, who samples exclusively from amateur music enthusiasts’ online videos. Trawling the internet from his bohemian atelier outside Tel Aviv, the magpie plucks a note from a child’s piano recital or a bassline from some dude’s virtual jam session and feeds them into his Sony Vegas editing software. Scattered around the globe, his virtual bandmates couldn’t possibly imagine — and in some cases, may never find out — that their rights-free hobby postings have become part of an all-new pop track, from which he takes no profits.
While Kutiman does it for the music, what Haar recognizes is that for each of the talents he has chosen to incorporate into his ThruYou videos, the remix maestro may as well be Ed McMahon, walking up the driveway of unsuspecting winners’ houses with that giant Publishers’ Clearing House paycheck under his arm: “Congratulations, you may already have a million viral-video hits to your name!” The helmer’s challenge therefore becomes approaching Montgomery without letting on his real reason for profiling her, lest he spoil the surprise. (As luck would have it, they’re present and rolling when her Kutiman-upgraded song “Give It Up” finds its way back to her.)
In the meantime, that gives us a chance to get to know Montgomery, observing her often-tough existence through a grubby-looking mix of cell-phone-shot clips and slightly more polished docu footage. Working as a nurse in a New Orleans retirement home, she powers through her hardship with song, treating her elderly companions to a few bars of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” then going home to over-share the latest setbacks in her life online. Candid accounts of childhood sexual abuse endear her to us, while attempts to get noticed border on the heart-breaking, as when Montgomery takes the stage at a local open-mic night, singing to a near-empty house.
In thrall of the filmmakers’ almost gratuitous empathy, audiences will find themselves wondering how label execs haven’t spotted Montgomery’s obvious talent before now, looking past what would be obvious deal-breakers to image-conscious industry suits: The metal braces on her teeth, that wild ruby-red weave in her hair, the rough nights when her voice simply doesn’t come, the thuggish ex-g.f. to whom half her songs seem to be dedicated.
Kutiman sees past all that, impressed by more than just “Give It Up.” He’s fascinated by the woman responsible, and even before getting a chance to meet Montgomery (who eventually flies to Tel Aviv to accompany his veejay routine in concert), Kutiman gets to work on two other songs, “Backwards” and “Stay Here.” Taken together, these three tracks — which repeat multiple times over the course of the film, sounding more robust every time we hear them — prove her to be more than a one-hit wonder. That rare Princess whose wishes do come true, Montgomery’s what is known as a “genuine discovery.”