Presenting Princess Shaw is a feel-good documentary, but there is a nastiness underneath those tears of joy. Director Ido Haar does not editorialize much – there are only a handful of title cards, and no voiceover – so we’re left to think that the chronology is as magical as it looks. It is not, even after the most basic kind of scrutiny. Still, taken at face value, the music collaboration that defines the film suggests there is talent all around us. All that they need is context. That’s an appealing message, one that resonates now that it’s easier to get your fifteen minutes, but it a little dishonest, too.
Princess Shaw is a singer. She does not have a manager, a publicist, or regular paying gigs. But she’s tireless; she posts her songs on YouTube, performs at the odd open mic night, and auditions for the reality show The Voice. She eventually attracts the attention of Kutiman, an Israeli musician who takes snippets of individual instruments and splices them so they have more polish and depth. Haar films Kutiman reacting to Princess Shaw; he listens to her, and sees potential there. He records one of her songs, and she visits him in Israel once it goes viral.
Haar uses a lot of YouTube footage, mostly from Shaw as she documents her songs and hardships. He also films her in a cinema verite style: she lives in poverty in New Orleans, and has a history of abuse in her family. The footage of Shaw’s personal life is not quite poverty porn, although it circles around the term. The overall impression is not that Haar cares about Shaw, and instead he uses her as a means to make the Kutiman collaboration all the more heartwarming. The chronology implies that Kutiman’s discovery of Shaw is organic, and indeed the documentary includes footage of her being genuinely moved when she hears a spruced-up version of her work. But how did Haar know to film Shaw before Kutiman discovered her? I don’t think he did, which means he filmed Shaw without telling her the true point of his film. He lied to her – on one level, anyway – and the warm feelings in Presenting Princess Shaw do not quite justify it.
Presenting Princess Shaw is a testament to perseverance and a work ethic. Even after her car is stolen, Shaw radiates positive energy. It is infectious: it is there when she rehearses with Kutiman, and it is there when she meets strangers or street performers. I’m sure Shaw can attest, however, that good vibes do not exactly keep the lights on. There’s the rub in Kutiman’s style of music: no one actually owns any of it, so there is no way to turn it into a career. Clicks and YouTube view counts are not the same thing as dollars and cents. At one point during Presenting Princess Shaw, we see a Facebook comment that says Shaw should be the next Alicia Keys. The difference between her and Shaw is not just fame; it is a regard for intellectual property. This is a film that creates a special kind of frisson, especially now that there is so much undiscovered music out there. Frisson is elusive, unfortunately, and Shaw will never be the next Alicia Keys until people buy her records, or pay for her shows.