Courtney Barnett’s documentary Anonymous Club offers insight into life on tour with the notoriously shy indie rocker

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“Singing about panic attacks isn’t something most singers like to get into – it’s a bit of tricky territory,” a radio host tells Courtney Barnett, the rather hesitant subject of the duly cautious and meditative by Danny Cohen.

The wistful rocker-troubadour sits offscreen in the opening shot of Anonymous Club, facing an American whose energetic tone belies the weight of his lyrics. “How is it that your work is associated with such difficult, unpleasant and painful things? ” he keeps on.

Cohen cuts Barnett off: “Umm,” she begins, as if preparing to respond. “I think all of my songs are just trying to understand situations and feelings, uh, very openly, and to anyone who’s willing to listen.”

Courtney Barnett was a member of the bands Rapid Transit and Immigrant Union, along with Brent DeBoer of the Dandy Warhols.(Provided: movie art)

Almost a decade has passed since Barnett found herself on the receiving end of international fame – which began to materialize with the 2013 release of The Double EP: A Sea of ​​Split Peas, with its combination quirky with tongue-in-cheek, domestic lyricism and catchy melodies. (Incidentally, the Breakout Avant Gardener single was about an anaphylactic episode, not a panic attack.)

But the Melburnian has never been comfortable in the public eyeand remains demonstrably (and understandably) more adept at expressing himself through song than random radio hosts.

Shot over a three-year period, Anonymous Club — part observational documentary and part diary — follows the lowliest of Grammy nominees on tour in support of her second solo album, 2018’s Tell Me How You Really Feel. Bus journeys across the US, Europe and Asia are interrupted by pit stops in Melbourne, past homes and sublets or camped out in Milk’s warehouse hub! Records, the label founded by Barnett and his former girlfriend Jen Cloher in 2012.

A brown-haired white woman wears a white shirt and black pants and stands on stage holding a guitar in front of a crowd of thousands.
At Cohen’s suggestion, Barnett kept an audio diary using an analog dictaphone during filming.(Provided: movie art)

Made itinerant by the demands of the tour, shuttling between hotel rooms and green rooms and borrowed rooms, she finds solace in clowning around with band members Bones Sloane, Dave Mudie and Katie Harkin or, more often hunched over a guitar or a notebook.

To the extent that there is a sense of intimacy here – and that sense of the curtain being drawn is the end goal of such documentaries, however organized – it reflects the fact that Cohen, himself based in Melbourne , is a longtime collaborator of de Barnet. He’s worked with her on a handful of whimsical music videos since 2017, when he had her mime with Philadelphia’s Kurt Vile the vocal parts of their single. Mostly.

Barnett’s longstanding unease with the pitfalls of publicity is something Cohen was careful to consider in designing his feature debut.

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to search, up and down arrows for volume.
Audio playback.  Duration: 57 minutes 58 seconds

He chose to shoot on 16mm, giving Anonymous Club the warm, fuzzy aura of an old home movie, and reminiscent of Dont Look Back, DA Pennebaker’s historic portrayal of Bob Dylan on his 1965 tour of England, released in 1967; Cohen’s main touchstone. With his custom camera to record synchronized sound, Cohen’s one-man operation was even smaller than Pennebaker’s: a way to keep the filming process comfortable and low-key.

At the heart of Dont Look Back is the fact that Dylan and his revolving entourage frolic and bicker without acknowledging the presence of the camera: what we see was not staged for us, but rather in spite of us. . We feel like the curtain has been drawn, revealing something not quite for public consumption.

A white woman with shaggy brown hair wears a white t-shirt and a black beanie and leans her hands against the blue brick wall.
Cohen said in press notes, “Seemingly grand moments would continually fall short of their own expectations, which in turn sparked the search for smaller moments.”(Provided: movie art)

Anonymous Club operates on a different wavelength, however. Especially in the second half of the film – after Barnett, in search of rejuvenation, decides to embark on a solo tour without his band – the artist has a habit of addressing Cohen directly, jokingly showing off his “shoe collection“. (four eminently practical pairs) or expressing his enthusiasm for a haircut.

If your subject can’t forget the camera, try having them play with it (or rather the person holding it) instead.

The exchanges between the two – Cohen and Barnett; director and star – are a bit stuffy but all the more endearing for that. And yet, their conversation remains at the level of gossip, with both parties being too polite to get into anything more unruly.

Meanwhile, featured excerpts of Barnett’s audio diary entries – recorded on a dictaphone Cohen gave him; another tool to circumvent her natural shyness in front of the camera – to veer in the opposite direction: “I don’t know what I’m talking about anymore”, she confides in a particularly pessimistic moment. “I just feel like I’m going around in circles and digging myself a deeper hole.”

While such thoughts of self-flagellation are probably all too relevant, one could argue that a public figure expressing them is of particular value in bringing attention to mental health issues – and/or, if one were to take a cynical line, to foster the illusion of intimacy that drives the celebrity machinery.

A white woman with shaggy brown hair wears a dark t-shirt and sweatpants and plays guitar on a bed in a blue bedroom.
“There were no interviews, it was just a matter of being in the right place at the right time to find those moments,” Cohen said in press notes.(Provided: movie art)

But Barnett (unlike, say, Taylor Swift) made no secret of her anxious-depressive tendencies – quite the contrary. “I feel stupid, I feel useless, I feel crazy,” she sings (and would you expect any less from a song called Everybody Here Hates You?).

It’s perhaps telling that the first diary entry heard in the film finds Barnett full of doubts – not so much of herself, but of the exercise itself. “Danny, I’m trying to figure out how to delete…everything I said, because I’m embarrassed about it,” she said.

Sure, there’s no shame in the feelings she describes, but – without the kind of specificity and context she’s long been reluctant to provide (and with good reason) – her articulation here adds nothing. to his music. This music would seem to be the most fruitful mode of expression, both for her and for her fans.

Anonymous Club is currently in theaters.

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