Sometimes, you remember just where you were when you connected with a piece of music so powerful it erupted in your head. In the summer of 2000, I rushed in late to a packed all-media screening of “Gone in 60 Seconds.” I’d had a vexing day at the office, and was hoping the film would revive me. It did, more quickly than I imagined. After a flurry of titles, the soundtrack was filled with slow rhythmic claps, and over that came American voices, ancient yet present, not so much singing as chanting: “Green Sally up, and green Sally down. Lift and squat, gotta tear the ground.” The piano chords came in, simple but seductively syncopated, and then, beneath it all, a beat that was bigger than big. It echoed, it boomed, it made John Bonham’s thuds in “When the Levee Breaks” sound like someone banging on a tin can. And as it all repeated, the sound got bigger, grander, more primal. I had a vague knowledge of who Moby was, but didn’t know his music; his album “Play” had been out for a year, but I’d never heard it. As I learned during the closing credits, this was Moby (a track entitled “Flower”), and it was more than a song. It was pure drugs.
I’ve been a Moby fan ever since, and so I was primed to see “Moby Doc,” a documentary he co-wrote (along with the film’s director, Rob Gordon Bralver) that’s like a self-portrait, an acid flashback, a therapy session, a rumination, and a surrealist music-video package all rolled into one.
In the opening moments, we see Moby, the avatar of hooky rhapsodic EDM, still quizzical and lean in his mid-50s, wearing black glasses, a brown-and-white beard, and a red flannel shirt as he sits in his rather modest-looking home studio and speaks into the camera. He says he’s had a “strange life” that could have resulted in “just another biopic about a weird musician.” But he says that “what’s more interesting, at least to me, is the why of it. The why of everything.” That may set off your “Uh-oh” alarm, especially since Moby, who’s a bundle of contradictions (a monkish trance-rock vegan trauma-victim hedonist), has a penchant for navigating the outer limits of cosmic hippie-ness.
As it turns out, the modest pleasure of “Moby Doc” is that it’s actually a conventional archival biography of Moby tucked inside a playful Dadaesque ramble. At times, the film skimps on details, and it includes nothing of Moby’s feuds, or of how Natalie Portman called him out two years ago for mischaracterizing their relationship when he wrote about her in his memoir. In that sense, it’s a guarded movie. Yet it presents Moby as a confessional figure, speaking openly of his addictions, the lost wilderness of his childhood, and how his career took off in ways he never planned.
In his 20s, after spending his teenage years living in the wealthy enclave of Darien, Conn. (though he and his mother had no money), he moved into an abandoned locks factory, a sprawling industrial shell that had electricity but no heat or running water. This was the period in which he had stringy long hair, a wool cap, 1960s engineer’s glasses, and a black leather jacket, making him look like a brainier version of Crispin Glover in “River’s Edge.” He was a geek, but handsome in a thin-featured neurasthenic way, like a punk-rock Poindexter. He bought a keyboard and drum machine, a sequencer, and a cheap four-track recorder, and there, layering solo sounds in his concrete squatter’s kingdom, he found a kind of joy.
But that was after Moby, née Richard Melville Hall, had endured a home life so miserable that the only beings who could lend him a shred of inner peace were his animals: a dog, a cat, and the white lab rats his chemist father brought home from Columbia University. The future animal-rights activist was born here. As an only child, Moby saw his parents rage at each other; the night his mother threatened divorce, his father got drunk and drove into a wall at 100 miles per hour. This left Moby a prime candidate to merge into the hardcore punk scene of the 1980s, which he did. Yet though he claimed a kinship with bands like Bad Brains, Minor Threat, and Black Flag, as a musician he couldn’t have been further from punk. The techno and house-music forms he began to work in were, in fact, the twin step-children of disco, and Moby would travel into New York, handing out his home-recorded tapes on the sidewalk. It was that diligence that landed him the gig of DJ-ing at the downtown hot spot Mars.
“Moby Doc” is dotted with staged therapy sessions, cheeky metaphorical art shots of Moby in a jacket and tie posed in the desert, and one sequence acted out by a troupe of Moby’s friends who the film dubs the Childhood Trauma Re-enactment Players. Holding together the earnest but amused tone of how-did-I-get-here? curiosity is Moby himself, who is one of those pop-culture figures, like Steven Soderbergh or Michael O’Donoghue, who suggests a hyperrational mad scientist. He has an owlish charisma, and part of it is that Moby insists on treating his fame as a kind of accident, yet we see clips of him from the ’90s, when he came into his own, spinning records as a bare-chested guru of the midnight party, fashioning his own DJ-as-rave-superstar aura.
His first hit, “Go,” in 1991, has an amazing story behind it. He put it out as an independent single, and it was no big success, selling maybe 1,500 copies. But he got a request to do a remixed version, and because he was into “Twin Peaks” at the time, he mixed in some of the strings from that seminal series’ theme music. When you hear the remix, which wound up selling a million copies (it won David Lynch’s approval — he’s one of the Moby pals interviewed in the doc), it’s nothing less than the paradigm of the Moby sound. A song like “Porcelain,” the haunting slow groove off “Play,” uses sampled strings in the same way — to lend a romantic spirit to the chilly dance-club ethereality. That’s why no one’s tracks sound like Moby’s.
You could say that success agreed with him; you could also say it agreed with him too much. Throughout “Moby Doc,” Moby meditates on how he dealt with his growing celebrity — by embracing what he calls the “degenerate” rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, and by glorying in the fame with a “Wow, I thought I hated myself! Am I actually worthy? You’re goddamn right I’m worthy!” totality that maybe only a geek with a scarred childhood could know. He talks about how he became one of those people who would hang out at strip clubs, having 15 drinks a night and doing countless drugs, and he tells one singular story about how he woke up on an English tour bus, after a night of partying, to discover…well, let’s just say that you would not hear this anecdote in an “American Masters” biography.
He was so high on himself that he made a godawful look!-I’m-a-guitar-god punk album, “Animal Rights,” that nearly ended his career. I remember hearing it in the early 2000s and thinking, What on earth…? It so dented his cachet that even as he was recording the tracks from “Play,” and playing them around his Nolita neighborhood, he thought he was washed up; he was getting ready to go back to Connecticut and teach. The film should have told us more about how “Play,” with its sampled field recordings that reverberate as a cross-racial American mythology, came into being, and it omits a crucial detail of the “Play” success story (that the album took off through the licensing of songs for commercials — not that there’s anything wrong with that). But it captures the astonishing ride to icon status it put Moby on. He didn’t stop drinking and drugging; that would take years. But he found a groove he could stay on, even after the mega-sales cooled.
I haven’t always kept up on my Moby, and “Moby Doc” ended, for me, the way my connection to his music began — by a movie introducing me to a track I hadn’t heard before. The closing credits are built around “The Perfect Life” (off the 2013 album “Innocents”), a soaring song that ties into a theme Moby talks about throughout the movie: that we’re all looking for some version of what we imagine to be our ideal existence, and that it doesn’t exist, and never has for anyone. That’s a heavy idea, but listening to the song all I could register was how rapturous it is. He’d done it again.