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Why ‘As I Am’ beats most DJ documentaries

The true story of the life and death of legendary selector DJ AM is a must watch, writes JACK TREGONING. 

Most music documentaries are an exercise in myth making. Narrow that niche to dance music and the results can be particularly sycophantic – in the past five years of America going all-in on EDM, several blockbuster DJs have claimed their Hollywood moment. The results, by and large, have been documentary making as brand management.

Since 2011, David Guetta, Armin van Buuren, Swedish House Mafia and Steve Aoki have each made their artist-approved movie. Meanwhile, the likes of Steve Lawler and Carl Cox agreed to less bombastic versions on smaller budgets. Festivals are even graduating from after-movies to feature-length documentaries, including EDC’s ambitious Under The Electric Sky.

The recent run of DJ documentaries shares a common thread: their protagonists are still alive. As I AM: The Life and Times of DJ AM is different.


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Another kind of DJ movie

The subject of this story, born Adam Goldstein, died from an accidental overdose at his New York apartment in August 2009. He was 36 and had struggled with drug addiction throughout his adult life.

Goldstein’s absence from the creation of As I AM makes it as sombre as it is celebratory. It also doesn’t matter what you know about his life as DJ AM going in; in fact, it’s the only DJ documentary in recent memory that aims to go deeper than a success story.

“It’s the only DJ documentary in recent memory that aims to go deeper than a success story”

As I AM is directed by Kevin Kerslake, who has made music videos and concert movies for the likes of Nirvana, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Smashing Pumpkins, Lana Del Rey and Depeche Mode. In short, he’s just the guy for the job.

Following Goldstein’s death, his family asked Kerslake to consider a DJ AM documentary. At first, the director declined, reasoning he wouldn’t be free to tell the whole gritty story in a family-sanctioned project. The Goldstein family, however, backed Kerslake’s desire to be “100-percent honest”. He agreed to take the job on the proviso he would have final cut.

The end result is a documentary that, while painstakingly detailing Goldstein’s genius as a DJ, never sugarcoats his demons. He was both what Diplo coins “the Tony Hawk of DJs” and, in the blunt words of another friend, just “a garden variety drug addict”.


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Adam Goldstein, the DJ

As his rise to success is a quintessentially American story, most Australian viewers won’t be all that familiar with the particulars of DJ AM’s career. As I AM methodically tracks his DJ timeline (this film is almost two hours long), making a strong case for his influence.

We first see him as a teenage hip-hop head, throwing himself headlong into becoming a turntablist like Jazzy Jeff or Mixmaster Mike. DJ AM started to turn heads by creating mashups on the fly with a bag of vinyl, cutting quickly between 15-second segments, pulling off his tricks with lightning speed and a sly sense of humour. Once he made the switch to Serato, his mashup style became even more dexterous.

“His natural instincts always took him back to grimier clubs”

While DJ AM’s swagger ensured he was a sought-after booking for celebrity parties in the mid-2000s, he still preferred the approval of influential Hot 97 host Mister Cee over a call-up from Madonna. His career soon blew up, landing him a lucrative Vegas contract before lucrative Vegas contracts were a dime a dozen. However, his natural instincts always took him back to grimier clubs. His weekly LA party with Steve Aoki, Banana Split Sundaes, was a magnet for down and dirty club kids, with guests like MSTRKRFT, A-Trak and Diplo coming through.

Kerslake has pulled together a lot of great footage from these years to create a nostalgic snapshot of the MySpace era. A cast of talking heads assure us DJ AM was on top of the world right then, and we see it for ourselves in thrilling neon-tinted flashbacks.


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Adam Goldstein, the addict

Underpinning all this exhilaration is the fact that Adam Goldstein didn’t feel on top of the world.

Kerslake ensures his subject’s existential struggle is never far from the story of his rise. Goldstein’s troubles began early with a fractured family life. He took to drugs as a kid and tried everything he could get his hands on. He discovered ecstasy in the LA rave scene (another cue for Kerslake to dig up great archival footage), but the drug he couldn’t shake was crack cocaine.

Goldstein’s burgeoning crack habit coincided with his early DJ career, when he would often disappear for days. “You know you’re an addict when you’re smoking crack to go to sleep,” deadpans his friend Shane Powers. With the help of AA, Goldstein was sober for a stretch of 11 years during the height of his fame, instead channelling his addictive personality into food, sex and amassing over 500 pairs of sneakers.

“Goldstein’s absence hangs over the film: we know how this story ends”

Watching all this unfold over Kerslake’s film has a particularly uneasy feel. Goldstein’s absence hangs over the film: we know how this story ends. As I AM is in a sense narrated by snippets of a speech Goldstein gave at an AA meeting to mark his 11th sober birthday. As Kerslake tells it, the documentary was “built from that share”, and it’s a powerful, eerie device.

This dark story is set against an often surreal backdrop of Los Angeles. As I AM contrasts Goldstein’s solitary struggle with the theatre of his accidental Hollywood fame. After undergoing gastric bypass surgery to combat the weight he gained in sobriety, we see the newly svelte DJ AM go major. He lands Nicole Richie as a fiancée, gets hounded by Entertainment Tonight, parties with celebrities and turns up for cameos in Iron Man 2 and Entourage.

It’s clear, though, that music made Goldstein happiest. After a transformative, drug-free experience watching Daft Punk’s Alive tour, he was in a good place. Then, in 2008, he and Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker were the sole survivors of a private plane crash that killed four people. It’s a stranger-than-fiction event that sets up the film’s agonising final stretch, from his recovery to post-traumatic stress symptoms to eventual relapse.


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Goodbye to all that

As I AM isn’t a perfect film. Some of the editing decisions feel self-consciously “cool”, it could stand to lose about 20 minutes, and the tone is often quite bro-y, with far fewer women speaking on camera than we see dancing half-naked in clubs.

“What makes this superior from other DJ docos is the lasting impression it leaves. We feel the full weight of Goldstein’s unravelling”

What makes this superior from other DJ docos, though, is the lasting impression it leaves. We feel the full weight of Goldstein’s unravelling. This effect isn’t achieved so much by the talking heads as the presence of Goldstein in past footage, so visibly flawed and self-eviscerating.

Some of the documentary’s most affecting moments are lifted from Gone Too Far, the MTV series about drug addiction that Goldstein finished filming just days before his death. His demeanour in these clips is far from the cliché of a spotlight-seeking DJ. He’s even-handed and empathetic in his conversations with addicts, but the proximity to drugs visibly rattled him. In one scene, he leaves the room because the sight of a crack baggie puts him on edge. That’s an awful thing to consider: Goldstein’s efforts to help addicts may have hastened his own relapse.

Most DJ documentaries end with a triumphant concert or festival set for a sea of adoring fans. We might’ve seen some minor wrinkles in the star’s personality, but they’re still on top. This one ends with plaintive strings that lead into Elton John’s Rocket Man. You won’t feel like fist pumping, but at least As I AM will stay with you tomorrow.

‘As I AM: The Life and Times of DJ AM’ is available to download here

Jack Tregoning is a freelance writer based in New York. You can follow him on Twitter.