If nothing else, “Moby Doc” is the perfect title for Rob Gordon Bralver’s documentary about the electronic musician Moby. Not because its subject, born Richard Melville Hall, is the great-great-great-grandnephew of a certain novelist — somehow that never comes up — but rather because the pun’s tongue-in-cheek aftertaste of self-importance so accurately prepares your palate for an insufferable movie that wants to be profound and benign in equal measure.
That title says “Just because this guy commissioned and co-wrote a film about himself on the heels of publishing two different memoirs doesn’t mean that he takes himself too seriously.” It sets just the right tone for a perversely navel-gazing portrait of one artist’s long journey toward accepting their own insignificance; a documentary by and about a famous person who insists that he only deserves to be the subject of a documentary because — for all of his unlikely success and close personal friendship with David Bowie — he’s reached the divine understanding that he doesn’t really deserve to be the subject of a documentary. Maybe such meta-irony is on-brand for an outspoken animal rights activist who borrowed his stage name from the story of a mad-eyed hunter, but that layered mesh of defense mechanisms obscures the white whale that Moby appears to have been chasing since the natural outcast first picked up a guitar: An abiding sense of self-worth.
It can be hard to remember now — after a string of unremarkable albums, loaded accusations of “audio Blackface,” and those vociferously refuted claims of dating Natalie Portman when he was 30 and she was “20” — but Moby used to be cool. Combining end-of-the-century frustration with the cusping wonder of a brave new world, he burst onto the scene with cinematic dance music that found a human soul below the cold surface of early ’90s electronica. It’s no wonder that his breakthrough hit layered the voice of soul singer Jocelyn Brown and the heartbroken synths of “Laura Palmer’s Theme” on top of a pulsing techno beat, or that Michael Mann chose “God Moving Over the Face of the Waters” to soundtrack the final moments of “Heat” (its analog and digital piano notes swirling around each other in a double helix that lent them both divine purpose and consecrated a similar dynamic between the actors on screen).
When a friend introduced him to the field recordings of Alan Lomax, Moby spun those fuzzy snippets of found blues and gospel into the biggest-selling electronica album of all time. This critic remembers buying his copy of “Play” at a Starbucks that was pumping it through the speakers like too much caramel syrup.
Just a few years earlier, the Harlem-born DJ had pivoted back to his hardcore roots with a vegan punk record that could have positioned him as the nerd Morrissey of a new decade. “Animal Rights” flopped so hard that Moby wrote “Play” with the expectation that it would be his last release. Maybe that would’ve been for the best — sometimes there’s nothing worse than seeing all of your dreams come true. The record’s success turned the scrawny misfit into a bona fide nerd rock star, but mega-fame proved addictive and unfulfilling in equal measure, and the centrifugal force of the music industrial complex kept Moby affixed to a ride that he knew was making him sick.
All of this rise-and-fall history is covered in “Moby Doc,” complete with plenty of context about Moby’s harrowing childhood, subsequent alcoholism, and lifelong preference for animals over people. But Bralver and his subject are both quick to recognize that such granular biographical details are anathema to a movie about the smallness of human existence; a movie that starts with the self-actualized musician cautioning us that “We all work from a place where our actions have meaning” and dismantling the collective delusion that “if we do things in the right way, our lives might somehow be better” (cue a quick but rather gross montage of “teachable suicides” that includes Anthony Bourdain and Robin Williams).
And so “Moby Doc” tries to have its pain and beat it too. The musician takes us through his formative years, but with an inflated sense of experimentalism that suffers from some delusions of its own. After insisting that this isn’t just going to be “another biopic about a weird musician,” Moby precedes to unspool exactly that. The only difference is how hard, and how transparently, he and Bralver try to disguise that.
Using crude illustrations, the “Childhood Trauma Re-Enactment Players,” a Woody Allen-like encounter with the grim reaper, and a trio of (admittedly sick) talking mice puppets to sketch out his past, the film strains Moby’s past through a meat-slicer of distancing effects that make it feel inexact rather than surreal. Later, Moby records his narration for the film over the phone as he’s walking around an Indian grocery store, as if the forced casualness will diffuse the narcissism of the whole endeavor. “I know not all that may be coming,” Herman Melville wrote in “Moby Dick,” “but be it what it will, I’ll go to it laughing.”
If only any of this were funny. At one point — as he prepares to pivot back towards the more abstract lessons of his life in a move that’s very “I’m not a regular teacher, I’m a cool teacher” — Moby turns to the camera, acknowledges that things have been too conventional for his liking, and insists that “we’re now going to go back to being weird.” Alas, as is often the case with modern cinema, “being weird” turns out to be just another way of saying “we’re going to invoke David Lynch, and hope his mystique rubs off on us.” In this case, Lynch himself shows up as the film’s only talking head interviewee. Instead of referencing his shared passion with Moby for transcendental meditation or otherwise helping the film pivot toward the “why of it all” that Moby and Bralver have buried far too deep into the mix, Lynch merely delivers some basic platitudes about the empty promise of material success. Not even he can save this movie from becoming the very thing that it professes to rise above — time and again, “Moby Doc” self-defeatingly suggests that so much of Moby’s supposed wisdom has to be learned the hard way.
Which isn’t to say that the details of Moby’s struggles aren’t compelling — it’s heartrending to learn that he was too drunk to attend his mother’s funeral, for example — only that “Moby Doc” fails to frame them in a revealing way. The passage focused on the global popularity of “Play” is spliced with archival footage of a rocket heading into orbit and freckled with “Behind the Music”-worthy insights like “It completely corrupted and ruined me, but at the time it was so much fun.” Occasional cutaways to the semi-recent event where a Seattle orchestra performed stunning arrangements of Moby’s best songs only emphasizes how unworthy this documentary is of its subject’s work (Bralver’s non-diegetic emphasis on deep cuts doesn’t do the movie any favors).
But even this superficial perspective into Moby’s life as a public figure is richer than what follows, as the film hazily pivots towards the vague epiphanies that cushioned the musician’s fading relevance and brought him toward sobriety. Portrait shots of the musician sitting inside a giant lava lamp and scenes of Moby subjecting himself to mock psychiatry sessions (“It’s my professional and personal opinion that you are a broken human being,” says his fake therapist) solidify the simple idea that fame only made him more vulnerable to the pitfalls of externalizing one’s self-worth, but do so in such a clumsy way that it seems as if “Moby Doc” is perversely trying to hide the hard work that Moby has done on himself since.
A more specific accounting of the man’s choices (i.e. so much as a passing mention of the Natalie Portman thing, or a more self-congratulatory look into his vegan advocacy) would have provided the film’s philosophical endgame with a stronger foundation, but even the most important pillars of Moby’s life don’t appear to prop anything up. While his empathy for animals is clearly the cornerstone of his hard-fought wisdom (“The animal is almost an emissary of the vast existential void we’re all afraid of,” Moby says before telling Death itself that he isn’t scared of what’s to come), his rise from rock-bottom is so poorly sketched out that it seems like the movie isn’t consecrating a changed man so much as trying to prove that its subject has become one. That he’s taking the long view on existence, and doesn’t feel the need to impress people anymore. “Why in the world would I want to make a documentary about myself?,” the musician asks during the opening minutes of “Moby Doc.” It’s genuinely upsetting to feel your answer to that question growing more cynical as the film goes on.
Greenwich Entertainment will release “Moby Doc” in theaters and on VOD on Friday, May 28.