The hits have already been hard enough by the time Amy Goldstein’s documentary “Kate Nash: Underestimate the Girl” gets to its biggest gut punch. Set mostly between the years of 2014 and 2018 — the “lost years” of Nash’s pop career, basically — the film follows the multi-talented singer and performer as she attempts to not only resuscitate her career, but to keep it viable and independent in an industry that has never had much interest in that sort of thing.
An instant star at the age of 18, Nash went from literal obscurity (she worked in a fast food joint, lived with her parents, and posted her music on MySpace) to traveling the world as an in-demand artist in the span of mere months. A desire to grow creatively led to her label dropping her, and Goldstein’s film opens with Nash fighting hard to come back on her own terms. It’s a tough story, but an old one, and audiences will have to wait for half the documentary to zip by — and it does! Nash is very easy to invest in, even in surface-level observations — before the other shoe drops and “Underestimate the Girl” goes somewhere much more raw and rewarding.
Still, for the first 45 minutes of the alternately messy and vibrant documentary, one bolstered by Nash’s open-hearted charm and her rare honesty, “Underestimate the Girl” feels like well-trod territory. Nash’s intent on doing things her way is presented as both emblematic of her personality and the result of an industry that one pal succinctly explains “fucked her up.” And, for a while, things are OK enough: Nash and her “girlgang” of bandmates set out on an indie tour that reminds the world that Nash still exists, while also reminding her that there are plenty of fans eager to see and hear her. There’s not a lot of money, but there’s hope, and a new manager intent on introducing Nash to new ideas and ways of making cash.
Goldstein doesn’t root the film in time and place so much — the only on-screen text here is to ever-so-briefly explain who (some, not all) people are and to spill out Nash’s own lyrics during performances and mini music videos, good luck finding a solid date or even a location announcement — but a quick glance at Nash’s Wikipedia clarifies when it’s all happening. Intermittent interviews with Nash and some of her family and friends fill in gaps, and an early wealth of footage from Nash’s rise to fame helps to further set the scene.
And yet, after half the movie ticks by with Nash making slow gains, it’s hard to shake the vague sense that “Underestimate the Girl” isn’t going to suddenly become some grand, happy comeback story. Where, indeed, is this going? Goldstein seems mostly content to sit back and let the drama unfold, and while her lack of heavy-handedness in hinting at what’s to come is admirable, it also lends to an overall unfocused feeling to the doc. The tail is wagging the dog, and when “Underestimate the Girl” finally kicks into gear after its biggest twist, viewers might wonder why it all doesn’t feel this urgent and personal.
For every big win like a hopeful move to LA or the signing of a new publishing contract (for newbies, a songwriting deal, not a singing deal), there are a dozen tiny losses. Here’s Nash singing to a group of a marketing execs during their lunchtime (asked what exactly the company does and what the hell it could do with Nash, their buzzword-obsessed boss can only happily trill that they have many relationships with many great brands!), there she is running through a variety of possible jingles to show her commercial versatility. It’s not immediately clear that something is rotten — besides, you know, the entire music industry — because Nash continues to bring her good humor and spirit to every gig, real or not, demoralizing or inspiring.
Then, of course, finally, horribly, the last big blow. It is, as with many blows that come throughout the film, an old one, a tough one, and the kind of thing that would sink most people. Nash, always engaging and interesting, even when the film doesn’t quite know what to do with her, is unmoored, but “Underestimate the Girl” finally seems to have found its purpose.
At just 90 minutes, “Underestimate the Girl” can’t cover every inch of Nash’s life, and while it builds in understandable boundaries — viewers don’t need to know about Nash’s romantic life, and details about her earlier mental health battles aren’t needed to further contextualize her emotional state during this fraught period — Goldstein does still attempt to shoe-horn in some last minute information. It’s only in the film’s final act, for instance, that “Underestimate the Girl” get into Nash’s many charitable endeavors, most of them focused on kids, many of them to blame for some of her early financial troubles.
Clearly, there’s plenty left on the table when it comes to Nash (and, when it comes to the film, the cutting room floor), but “Underestimate the Girl” ultimately finds its way to a suitable ending: there isn’t one. It’s just time for the next verse, a comeback anthem that remains unfinished, but well worth a listen.
“Kate Nash: Underestimate the Girl” debuts on virtual cinema platform Alamo on Demand on Friday, May 22. A limited traditional theatrical rollout is planned for August.