The film asks the viewer not only to watch or learn but also to deal with deep, unsettling truths about a public figure few people understood.
Lately, it seems as though each month another film is released that chronicles the life of a musician who suffered from substance abuse and died young. There have been biopics on Miles Davis and Hank Williams and documentaries on Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse. Amy was compelling enough to take home an Academy Award. This month we are to grapple with the story of Adam Goldstein, better known as DJ AM, in Kevin Kerslake’s As I AM: The Life and Times of DJ AM. “Grapple” feels like the right word here. The film asks the viewer not only to watch or learn but also to deal with deep, unsettling truths about a public figure few people understood.
As I AM opens with footage from the most well-known and tragic moment of Adam Goldstein’s life: the dashcam of a police vehicle arriving at the scene of a plane crash where plumes of fire scorch the sky. The accident was one of the more notable plane crashes in recent history, one which took the lives of four passengers but which Goldstein and Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker managed to survive. The film just teases viewers with this clip; we are not actually to start here, but this brief reminder of who this figure was and a peek at the tragedies to come serves as a good hook. Kerslake then jumps back to Goldstein’s troubled childhood and works chronologically from there, up to the plane crash, and then eventually to Goldstein’s overdose which took his life at 36.
The film’s narrative shifts along the way from a story of an addict to one of a sober, successful celebrity to one of a survivor to one of a victim. The editing shifts between touching moments and sequences of gluttonous excess in often unsettling ways. While clips and audio from interviews Goldstein participated in are used, so are the voices of countless other DJs and friends and family members. In one regard the cacophony of voices legitimizes the stories being told, especially those about his addicted, younger persona. One friend will remember a story and another will tell almost the same one. But often their words take up so much space that Goldstein’s own voice becomes the side dish instead of the entrée. Perhaps the problem is less the number of people involved in the project and more of a visual problem that makes it difficult to keep all of the characters straight. The graphics used to identify speakers are flashy and tough to read, creating a layer atop the distracting video footage. Other times, voices are used as if the audience were able to identify speaker #12’s voice from speaker #21’s. DJ and producer Mark Ronson’s peculiar New York-via-London accent makes him the only one distinct enough to attribute specific quotes to, thought quoting him here would be fruitless as little he or any of his fellow interviewees say is nearly as captivating as the words from the subject himself.
Ultimately, it is Goldstein’s voice that is the one the viewer is most anxious to hear, and the interviews selected for use in the film deliver. His ability to speak intimately and honestly about his drug problem is even more impressive than the clips of him DJing parties for Vegas and LA elite. When he speaks about his alcohol dependency starting at age 11 or 12, he describes the sensation of the alcohol flowing down his throat, that he wanted “more of that warmth.” Later on, after years of sobriety, when he stands next to a table in a police station on which sit mountains of drugs, that warm feeling is referenced again and it is impossible not to sense that the end of both the film and of Goldstein’s life is near.
Goldstein’s uncanny self-awareness makes the words of others mostly futile. Kerslake uses silence very rarely, but when it is used it’s deafening. When Kerslake simplifies in this way, the story is allowed to move at its own pace and tone, but he is not willing to fully give up the reins. Often the footage seems excessive, with topless nightclub women and hard partiers taking up what feels like almost as much screen time as footage of Goldstein. Animation is used, too, and it lacks cohesion with the gritty nightlife scenes and serious discussion of addiction. Maybe this is to be expected from a director who primarily makes music videos, but for a film nearing two hours, less flash would allow for the viewer to digest the material without distraction. Never is the audience left in peace long enough to experience genuine emotion, something that Amy was able to achieve scene after scene.
While it might not be Kerslake’s duty to make a film about Adam Goldstein with a strong emotional heart, it seems a waste not to. Goldstein lived his sober life trying to help others conquer their addictions, so much so that the film points to his sense of obligation as being the thing that ultimately killed him. If so, why not make his story one that sits heavy with audiences so that even after death he can still inspire people to lead healthy lives? Instead, As I AM is a revealing watch but sadly not one to leave its audience in deep contemplation.