Presenting Princess Shaw
PRESENTING PRINCESS SHAW, character-centered documentary, not rated, Jean Cocteau Cinema, 3.5 chiles
The internet loves a Cinderella story — and what else could you call what happened to Samantha Montgomery, also known by her stage name, Princess Shaw? A New Orleans elder-care nurse by day, she is by night the singing sensation of her own bedroom when she’s not out performing at local open-mic nights, which she’ll do even if most of the seats are empty. Like thousands of other people flirting with potential internet fame, Princess Shaw has a YouTube channel. She posts videos of her singing, a cappella, as well as some in which she talks about her life or reads from her writing. She’s been through some dark times. She’s a talented lyricist with a voice that deserves a backing band, and she has personality to spare, even though she seems perpetually exhausted. Israeli documentarian Ido Haar is filming her for what she believes is a movie about people with YouTube channels. She has no idea that Haar found her through a musician named Kutiman who lives on a kibbutz in the Negev desert, or that Kutiman is, for lack of a better term, her fairy godfather.
Kutiman — credited in the film by his given name, Ophir Kutiel — composes music by sampling from pre-existing videos on YouTube. He edits down to individual notes, or uses longer portions in a loop, to create fully rendered, multilayered pieces of music. He has fallen for Princess Shaw’s soulful striker, “Give It Up.” His orchestration puts meat on its bones. The main musical hook is a classical piano improvisation played by a little girl in a fancy dress. The blues and Motown inspirations come through, as does a mournful edge of klezmer, resulting in a haunting tune that it would be easy to assume is already a well-known hit.
Because Montgomery doesn’t know what the movie is really about, Haar’s approach could be seen as more reality-show than documentary. The reveal, when it comes, isn’t belabored. Being on hand for her reaction when she sees Kutiman’s video, which we have been anticipating for some time, doesn’t feel exploitative. The movie’s structure is novelistic, with two storylines that converge at the end. Throughout, moments in Kutiman’s tranquil life are contrasted with Montgomery’s more hectic one. (She has just gone through a breakup and gotten her own apartment when her car is inexplicably vandalized.) Though Montgomery doesn’t exactly shrug things off, she doesn’t dwell on the daily struggle, either. She’s friendly to everyone she meets. She is, in her own words, open. That she is rewarded in the form of someone like Kutiman finding and selecting her video out of the billions watched on YouTube every day seems like a modern-day miracle, possible only in the internet age. — Jennifer Levin
Internet sensation: Samantha Montgomery