He’s an Israeli composer who goes by the moniker Kutiman and scours the Internet for clips of amateur musicians, creating collage-like symphonies from the found footage. She’s a New Orleans native named Samantha Montgomery — stage name: Princess Shaw — who posts her own singer-songwriter compositions on YouTube, pining for someone to recognize her talents and rescue her from obscurity. From the way Ido Haar’s documentary cuts between the bearded, sagelike pomo artist and the would-be pop-soul chanteuse, you’d think this was dual portrait of two folks following their muses on the free-for-all cultural fringe. But what this movie is really focused on, in its equally uplifting and maddening way, is capturing a moment — specifically, the exact second in which Kutiman’s “borrowing” of Shaw’s vocals for a piece goes viral, and she discovers that her voice has indeed been heard. And how much of the marionette-like tug you feel leading up to that pay-off will color how you view this exercise in big-screen D.I.Y. wish-granting.
Regardless of Presenting‘s ultimate intent, you couldn’t ask for a more compelling doc subject than Shaw, a 39-year-old African-American retirement-home worker with a dyed-red ‘do, braces and the kind of pipes than can knock down buildings. Her backstory is filled with heartbreak and hell-or-high-water survival. Her online confessional posts alternate between can-do optimism and candid admissions of defeat. Whether our Princess-in-waiting is dolling up for open-mic nights and auditions for The Voice, egging on other musical hopefuls she encounters or staring bleary-eyed into a Webcam, you can’t take your eyes off her. The woman is a genuine inspiration, even before the movie’s twist; it’s another of Shaw’s filmed reactions, when a relative tells her that she was brave to protect her siblings from a sexually abusive adult and she holds back tears of gratitude, that feels like the real money shot.
Ultimately, however, Presenting Princess Shaw is as much as about that your-can-dreams-can-come-true third act as it about her, and you don’t need to know that Haar reverse-engineered his fairy tale — he began profiling Shaw after he knew that Kutiman had used her clips, but told her he was merely doing a film on YouTubers — to sense that the deck has been more than a little pre-stacked. Yes, all documentaries are constructs, and cold hearts will thaw the moment our heroine walks into her patron’s Tel Aviv studio and stands beside him, both smiling as they dig his latest remix. (If that doesn’t get you, the sight of Shaw basking in an Israeli audience’s applause after they perform their mash-up hit “Give It Up” most certainly will.) Her talent is undeniable, and she leaves a sweet song in your ears. It’s the way the film so blatantly manufactures that means of recognition, however, in the name of justifying its a-star-is-born ends that leaves a slightly sour taste in your mouth.