While Mary J. Blige’s groundbreaking debut 1992 album “What’s the 411?” put the singer on the map and defined hip-hop soul, many fans feel her second, “My Life,” is the one that defined her.
The album, released when she was just 23 years old, allowed listeners into a confessional box of songs that looked at trauma, abuse and destructive relationships. It speaks to her generation and those before and after, and continues to do so. Songs like “Mary Jane (All Night Long),” “I’m the Only Woman” and “I’m Goin’ Down” combine hip-hop, gospel and soul, and opened an emotional door not just for Blige, but her fans.
While on tour behind the album’s 25 th anniversary, Blige decided it was time to document “where all this pain came from — I wanted to talk to the fans,” she says.
She turned to director Vanessa Roth to capture the “love letter” to her younger self in “Mary J. Blige’s My Life,” which premiered Wednesday and is streaming on Amazon Prime Video from Friday (June 25).
Blige, who serves as an executive producer, and Roth wanted to tell the story of her evolution. “It’s about the making of that album and her life leading up to that,” Roth says. “It was about how that album represented her.”
Interviews include family members, friends and album executive producer Sean “Diddy” Combs.
Blige admits one of the toughest parts was revisiting being five years old — the time when her father left — and her experience with sexual abuse. “Why does much stuff happen to a little girl?,” she says. “I’m thinking about how many little girls in the world [that] are not safe, and the things they’re going through.
“The toughest part was reliving how my mom was single, raising her kids — things were happening to us because she was working. That was the toughest part, telling those stories of how I got hurt by some people when I was younger.”
To illustrate that, Roth used animation. “I still needed to establish her growing up and what led to making the album,” she says.
Over the years she’s heard from many fans how much the album’s songs resonated with them. “It was so humbling because I didn’t know I affected people,” she says. “They would say, ‘This album saved my life.’”
Roth was surprised by the extent of the album’s influence as well.
“I had no idea of that connection with the fans,” she says. “Mary means something very profound to women, and men too. She’s always reminding people that you’re not alone.” A powerful scene shows fans sitting together listening to the album discussing its impact.
The biggest challenge for Roth was not letting her own fears get in the way. “It was finding that balance to just stay true to what this needed to be about,” she says, “and not get myself intimidated by her, her career or her influence.”