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?
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.