Mary J. Blige’s 1992 debut, “What’s the 411?,” was an instant smash that established the young Yonkers singer as a multiplatinum hitmaker, a fashion icon and the prototype for what an R&B star could look and sound like in the hip-hop era. But it wasn’t until her second album, 1994’s “My Life,” that the Blige most of us are familiar with — the heart-on-a-sleeve singer-songwriter unafraid to mine her own considerable trauma through music — truly began to take shape.
Tracing that album’s dark genesis, exploring its legacy with fans and featuring brief (perhaps too brief) performance clips from a pair of 2019 concerts Blige staged to celebrate its 25th anniversary, Vanessa Roth’s “Mary J. Blige’s My Life” has no shortage of cooperation from the subject herself (also an executive producer). But there’s a valedictory glossiness to the film that sometimes underserves the warts-and-all power of the work in question — as a fan-centric retrospective, it hits plenty of the right notes; but as a chance to more thoroughly explore a complicated, still-influential landmark, it never digs quite deeply enough.
Blige’s place in early ’90s pop culture was unique at the time, and only seems more so in retrospect. Eschewing the part of the starmaking process that had often seen female R&B singers airbrushed of their more distinctive attributes, Blige brought a thoroughly modern authenticity to her persona from the start, even if much of that initial image was styled by the very young A&R Sean “Diddy” Combs, who plucked her from record label purgatory and helped shepherd her into a very different type of star. But what was perhaps most remarkable about her early career was the quickness with which she began to take control of her own narrative on her sophomore release, writing her own lyrics and using her own life as source material.
Illustrated through vintage photographs and artful animated sequences, Roth takes us through Blige’s rocky journey to “My Life,” from her rough childhood in Yonkers’ Schlobohm housing project, where she remembers regularly witnessing violence against women, including her mother; to her oft-recounted first meeting with Uptown Records founder Andre Harrell on the strength of an Anita Baker cover she recorded in a mall; to her own disorienting ascent to multiplatinum stardom, which brought with it struggles with substance abuse, depression, and a toxic relationship with Jodeci star K-Ci. By the time she got around to making her second album, Blige was, as she says, “all fucked up,” and poured that desperation into her studio work. Roth’s camera catches Blige’s emotional reunions with “My Life” producer Chucky Thompson and collaborator Big Bub, who recall songwriting and recording dates that often functioned like therapy sessions.
But considering the distinctiveness of “My Life,” and the vast cast of principals assembled here, one can’t help but wish the film delved a little deeper into the actual process of making it. Footage from the studio is sparsely deployed, and plenty of questions are left unexplored. Was there pushback from the label or radio programmers when they heard the album? (Blige’s contemporaries in the rock world — from Kurt Cobain to Chris Cornell — had plenty of room to exorcise their personal demons through song, but that space wasn’t always so easily granted to Black artists, particularly female ones.) How hard did she have to fight to make it? How did she find her voice as a songwriter and lyricist, and how did “My Life” inform her future work, such as 2005’s equally personal “The Breakthrough”? In one of the more arresting sequences of the film, Blige watches an old video of herself shutting down a tactlessly pushy TV interviewer from around the time of the album’s release, and notes of her young self, “I’m very protective of that girl.” Whether she means this as a message to the filmmakers is hard to say.
Throughout the film a cast of admirers and former collaborators — from Taraji P. Henson and Tyler Perry to Method Man and Alicia Keys — appear to sing Blige’s praises, as does the late Harrell, seen delivering a heartfelt birthday toast to his greatest discovery. But perhaps the most obvious testament to the album’s legacy here is seen in encounters with fans, several of whom don’t hesitate to tearfully tell Blige how her music saved their lives in the span of a seconds-long meet-and-greet. Blige doesn’t always appear to know exactly how to react, and that’s understandable. As purgative as making “My Life” may have been, and as humbling as this sort of appreciation must be, the toll of acting as a conduit for so much pain — not just her own, but also that of the legions of fans who see her as a kindred spirit — is surely considerable. As much as Blige can often appear to be an open vein of sincerity, she also seems to know exactly where to draw barriers, and that applies to this film as well. After all, it’s her life, not ours.