It is the most compelling, heart-swelling and utterly current version of the A Star is Born formula that you could ever hope to see.
Rumor has it that Bradley Cooper will soon be making his directorial debut on the third big-screen remake of William A. Wellman’s A Star is Born. Someone needs to call Mr. Cooper and tell him that he needn’t bother; the film’s been made, only it’s called Presenting Princess Shaw. The comparison may sound glib, but it’s the truth. Though Presenting Princess Shaw isn’t a narrative film but rather a documentary following the life of unknown singer-songwriter Samantha Montgomery (who performs under the name Princess Shaw), it is the most compelling, heart-swelling and utterly current version of the A Star is Born formula that you could ever hope to see.
Presenting Princess Shaw, directed by Israeli filmmaker Ido Haar (Melting Siberia, 9 Star Hotel) tells the story of Samantha Montgomery, a caregiver in a New Orleans home for the elderly, as she is discovered when an Israeli musical prodigy named Kutiman (birth name Ophir Kutiel) stumbles upon her music on YouTube. Kutiman’s shtick, which we’re introduced to in a performance at the Guggenheim in the film’s opening scene, is that he creates audio-visual musical experiences by combining pre-existing musical material into epic music video mash-ups. The film bounces back and forth between New Orleans, where Montgomery performs to empty bars and pours her heart out to a couple-dozen YouTube followers, and Kutiman’s kibbutz in Southern Israel, where, unbeknownst to Montgomery, he is using her composition and performance of a song called “Give It Up” as the backbone of his newest audio-visual experience.
Though this set-up works in the dramatic sense, it is also the source of the film’s only fundamental flaw. The camera follows Montgomery through her life, tracing scenes from work, a trip to Atlanta, a failed audition for NBC’s reality show “The Voice” and multiple visits to her place of work. Every once in a while the film checks in on Kutiman’s process. However, it isn’t until about three quarters of the way through the film that Kutiman puts his project online, where it goes viral, and Montgomery then discovers it. Though this scene is beautiful on screen, it raises the question, “How and why was she being filmed for months before this?” The film doesn’t reveal its process, raising questions over its authenticity as a documentary, which takes away from the wonderful moments when Montgomery begins to see her dreams come true. In interviews, both Montgomery and Haar reveal the truth, that he approached her saying that he was making a film about struggling musicians. She agreed knowing nothing of Kutiman until the moment (captured on camera) when her phone begins to go wild as more and more people watch Kutiman’s video, which has “Give it Up” by Princess Shaw right at its heart.
While bothersome, it would take far more significant filmmaking flaws to overshadow the brilliance of Samantha “Princess Shaw” Montgomery. Her haunting compositions and smooth, jazzy vocals evoke Natalie Cole, but her star quality goes beyond her significant musical abilities. The camera loves her, and she practically breaks through the screen while doing even the simplest things: like showing kids in the neighborhood how to strut, taking care of elderly patients, or going to a parade with a former girlfriend (to whom she utters one of the film’s great lines, “So, you were my muse. Damn you to hell.”). Still, it’s in the film’s most predictably emotional moments when you realize that Kutiman and Haar have truly discovered someone special. Like when Montgomery reads a note detailing her childhood abuse into the camera, holding back tears. Like when she pauses to perform with a street musician in downtown Atlanta and tells him, “If I make it before you, I’m going to come back and get you,” and we believe her. Like when Kutiman’s video goes viral and Montgomery, sitting in her cousin’s living room, breaks down, the relief of finally having some success written across her face. None of it comes across as manipulative or maudlin, a testament to our genuine, instant affection for Montgomery and to Haar’s subtle work.
The film ends in Tel Aviv, where Montgomery has been flown to perform with Kutiman and a bunch of other musicians who feature in his video. At this point, the film could have turned into a “Queen for a Day” parody, with Princess Shaw receiving a makeover that covered up the lines around her 39-year-old eyes and taking the attention away from a mouth full of braces. The film could have ended with the black woman tearfully thanking the white guy who discovered her. Instead, Princess Shaw arrives in her sweat clothes, hugs every single person in sight and gets to work. She mesmerizes an obviously star-struck Kutiman, who nervously shows her more music of hers that he’d been working with. He knows, as you will too after seeing Presenting Princess Shaw, that stars like Samantha Montgomery come along once in a lifetime, and he’s the lucky one for having the privilege of working with her first. He won’t be the last.