The new D’Angelo documentary offers a rare glimpse of a troubled visionary
A new documentary, entitled Devil’s Pie and directed by Dutch filmmaker and photographer Carine Bijlsma, traces the rise, disappearance and resurrection of D’Angelo.
Premiered in the UK last week (15 August) at the Southbank Centre as part of the venue’s Concrete Lates series, the film profiles a notoriously elusive artist and goes some way to untangling the mystery of his disappearance. Bijlsma revealed in the Q&A after the film that she gained access to D’Angelo’s inner circle after emailing a letter to his collaborator Kendra Foster. Bijlsma, like D’Angelo, comes from a musical family which she explained in the note. She was then told that D’Angelo felt like she “got it” and he’d be in touch. Some months later, he phoned.
While she might not have fully addressed every question-mark surrounding his absent years – namely the multiple arrests for various charges – Bijlsma was granted enough access to give the film a real intimacy. Moments of him backstage praying before shows on 2015’s Second Coming tour show an artist still completely in tune with the powers of music and faith. This film is also the first time in a long time that we’ve heard D’Angelo speak – something he does with remarkable clarity even when touching on his troubles with addiction.
The candidness of Bijlsma’s footage is backed up with illuminating archive footage from D’Angelo’s past. In a sequence narrated by Questlove, we learn how D’Angelo’s Pentecostal upbringing and childhood spent in churches helped him mould his staggered, devotional sound.
The film’s arc rests on the iconic video for Untitled (How Does it Feel), where a chiselled, topless D’Angelo looks straight down the lens and sings one of the GOAT sex-songs of all time. It’s a moment that shifted the narrative for his public perception from R’n’B luminary to sex god. Even when the opening frame of the video appeared at the screening, the track could barely be heard beneath the screams and whistles. Ironically, it seems like this was the turning point that, in some ways, triggered his years spent away from the limelight. The footage of his vests being torn off by fans at shows are counterpointed by teenage footage of him discovering his musical prowess at church with his grandmother; a contrast that helps audiences better understand his inner-conflict.
Perhaps the film’s most touching moment comes after a show where D’Angelo is backstage complaining about audiences on the tour coming to expect his new arrangement of Chicken Grease as they’ve already seen clips online. To reassure him that the social media age isn’t all bad, one of his bandmates pulls up Twitter and shows him the responses to the show. All unanimously positive, D’Angelo stares at the timeline as his bandmate scrolls and scrolls. He looks younger somehow – taken aback by the endless real-time praise, quietly reassured that it’s still the music that means something.