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TRIBECA 2019

Review: Devil's Pie: D'Angelo

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- In her new film, Carine Bijlsma has painted a portrait of a remarkable musician, to whom she managed to get up close and personal

Review: Devil's Pie: D'Angelo

In Devil's Pie: D'Angelo [+see also:
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Carine Bijlsma lifts the veil on the remarkable career of talented musician D’Angelo, and depicts the internal struggle that defined his professional life. She touches upon the fundamental premise underpinning his existence, helping us to understand why he veered away from his rise to the top and took a 14-year hiatus. With titles such as Voodoo, “Devil’s Pie” and “Unshaken”, the music itself evolves in line with a kind of spiritual quest: how does one deal with a burden that is buried too deep to grasp? Bursting with immense energy and boasting an amazing soundtrack, Devil’s Pie: D’Angelo celebrated its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival (24 April-5 May) as part of the Spotlight Documentary section.

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In the 1990s, D’Angelo was a shooting star. After winning several awards for his first album, Brown Sugar, he was clearly aiming for the very top. Cleverly, Bijlsma doesn’t place the man himself centre stage just yet, as she limits his presence to archive footage, subtle quotes and, most importantly, mentions by his fellow musicians. It leaves us wondering what happened to him, as the tension builds. He is compared to the likes of Hendrix, Coultrain and Gaye, as Questlove, one of the band members, claims many black musicians share the same fate. Should we place him on the crossroads next to legendary blues singer Robert Johnson, who allegedly made a pact with the devil in exchange for endless talent? The outline of a man starts to take shape. Enter D’Angelo.

Bijlsma has an impressive track record when it comes to music documentaries, and she always finds ways to connect with the artists themselves. The result is an intimate portrait of a remarkable musician. Although the footage of D’Angelo’s performances is highly enjoyable to watch, the film also gives a fascinating insight into the process behind the glamour. In that sense, it is a raw portrait, where shaky backstage footage and fragile moments of intimacy between the band members show the candid, but authentic, side of things. This is in stark contrast with the rigid, multi-camera concert recordings, which give his stage presence a powerful stability. It turns out that this is a duality that lies at the core of his problems. D’Angelo recalls a gig at the North Sea Jazz Festival, when he played in front of 30,000 people, all doing exactly what he asked them to do. “I heard a whispering in my ear: ‘Look at what you possess’,” he says, adding that this kind of power inevitably ends up becoming perverted in some way. The man on stage is not the man he knows. Bijlsma draws a parallel between this and the fevered chanting in the churches of his youth, the very roots of his music. Again, this duality manifests itself: his music derives from the place it now opposes. We see the desert and mountains in the twilight as voices shriek on either side. “I can’t get over my fear,” D’Angelo says. It becomes clear that he has found himself at a crossroads as well, subtly being offered a bargain. And as he admits in a moment of vulnerability, the stakes were high, as his soul, too, was on the table.

Devil's Pie: D'Angelo was produced by Interakt Productions (Netherlands) in co-production with Pulse Films (UK), Forest Whitaker's Significant Productions (USA) and Dutch broadcaster NTR.

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