“Presenting Princess Shaw” tells a pretty familiar showbiz fable. An aspiring singer from rough circumstances perseveres, but with little prospect for success, until an enigmatic figure comes to her aid and sets her on the path to recognition.
The twist, though, in this self-identified documentary by Ido Haar, is that Elizabeth Montgomery (aka Princess Shaw), from her home in New Orleans, has no idea that, halfway around the world, an Israeli producer and composer named Kutiman is building a mash-up video featuring her YouTube clips.
At first, the movie focuses primarily on Princess Shaw as she shares her songs and her thoughts online, performs at sparsely attended open mic nights, and maintains an admirable optimism in the face of adversity. She’s recently broken up with her girlfriend of eight years, and she details a history of childhood abuse.
Occasionally, though, we’ll cut to Kutiman, a silent, bearded, smoking figure in the process of combining Princess Shaw’s soulful a capella performances with samples from other amateur uploads. I wish, actually, we’d seen more of this process, which is a fascinatingly granular way to create a song.
Eventually, Kutiman’s release goes viral and Princess Shaw learns about it and travels to Israel to meet him. She is, of course, graciously grateful for the attention, but more realistic-minded viewers may wonder about how much she’s actually benefitting.
Apart from the legal and ethical implications of sampling publicly posted performances without permission, there’s the question of to what degree Kutiman is exploiting Princess Shaw’s talents.
Similar questions arise, the more you think about it, concerning the film itself. It’s constructed to make us think that Haar was following Shaw with a camera for weeks or months before Kutiman’s video was released. If so, how did he know what was going to happen? If not, it’s a case of misleading, manipulative editing that casts doubt on the entire story. The more you poke around online, the more it becomes clear it’s the latter.
I suppose that, in a universe where it’s perfectly okay to take the work of others and recombine it into something you call your own, it’s also acceptable to take the facts of reality and reorder them into a more satisfying narrative, while still calling it a documentary. But there’s got to be a line somewhere, and “Presenting Princess Shaw” comes pretty close to crossing it.
(90 min., not rated, opens Friday, June 3 at the Hollywood Theatre) GRADE: C+