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Documentaries about artists often feature moments that make viewers queasy, like the bit in Crumb about a man ritualistically passing a long string through his intensines, or the scene in American Movie about an actor bashing his head against a cabinet during filming of a low-budget movie’s fight scene. But there’s a level of cringe-inducing moments in such films that goes beyond freakish behavior and unchecked stupidity—the level at which documentation becomes exploitation.

Consider The Cream Will Rise (Docurama), a movie about pop singer Sophie B. Hawkins that just hit video, five years after making a few minor ripples on the festival circuit. The film starts like a standard music doc, with lots of backstage footage intercut with talking-head clips and performance footage. But the movie gets sidetracked when Hawkins confronts long-suppressed childhood traumas, and it eventually degenerates into a blur of psychobabble and emotional bloodletting. By the time Hawkins suggests that her mother’s drinking allowed a relative to sexually abuse Hawkins when she was a child, the movie has crossed the line from revealing the truth about an artist and wandered into the terrain of sensationalism.

It’s inarguable that society as a whole benefits whenever we talk openly about something that used to be swept under the rug, and it’s invaluable for artists to use their work to underscore the scars left by abuse. But it’s one thing for someone like Hawkins to explore her issues on disc, and quite another for a filmmaker to work herself into Hawkins’ world, then steal incredibly intimate images for public consumption. And while “steal” might seem an inappropriate word considering that Hawkins signed off on every frame of this movie, what other word describes the process by which filmmaker Gigi Gaston turned Hawkins’ deepest trauma into fodder for entertainment?

The Cream Will Rise has reached the mass market at an odd time, because with the pervasivness of Behind the Music and other similarly minded shows, the investigation of musical pysches has become a popular living-room pastime. We think nothing of listening to heavy-metal acts describe their run-ins with heroin, eavesdropping on the mourning of Southern rockers whose comrades were lost in vehicular tragedies, or soaking in the details of a country singer’s reunion with the birth mother who gave her up for adoption years ago. This emotional voyeurism, under the guise of learning more about how music is born, is simply a dressed-up version of the sleazy broadcasting for which Ricki Lake and Montel Williams are regularly villified.

Admittedly, it seems as if the process of making The Cream Will Rise led inevitably toward a documentation of the experiences that motivated Hawkins to begin therapy sessions. Even when discussing her relationship with Columbia Records, the singer uses the language of the pyschologically wounded: “I don’t care if I get dropped tomorrow,” she says. “I don’t give a fuck. Cause they need me and I don’t need them. That’s the bottom line. . . . We find these parents in the record companies, these fake fathers and mothers, and they treat us worse than our own parents treated us. Yet we think that they’re nicer because they’re giving us a shot. They’re not nicer. They’re just abusing us.”

Additionally, Hawkins’ musical output seethes with mixed messages illustrative of her past experiences: Her songs, from the hit “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover” to lesser-known tunes, are psychosexual provocations in which references to intercourse, lesbianism and torment swim alongside alternately loving and venemous shout-outs to the singer’s mom.

Yet if the story of Sophie B. Hawkins is a story of horrific childhood trauma, is that story necessarily any of our damn business? Does the fact that Hawkins chose to live a somewhat public life give us permission to know her every dark secret? And, a more worrisome question, why does Hawkins feel like she has to share those secrets? Is she—and every other celebrity who trots their traumas out for our amusement—so desperate for affection or belonging or acceptance or fame that, figuratively speaking, running naked through the streets seems a small price to pay?

If The Cream Will Rise were a serious movie instead of an amateurish pastiche of blurry Super-8 shots, whiny interview segments and clips from music videos, it would raise all sorts of questions about the creative soul and the wounds that the traumatized wear through life. As it is, the movie raises more interesting questions about itself than it raises about Hawkins—and the biggest question of all is why we’ve created a culture in which an invasive movie like The Cream Will Rise can find a niche.

—Peter Hanson

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