The centering theme in Roth’s documentary is the quintessential power of music, and how a melody can be a balm in times of hurt, depression, and self-doubt. For Blige and her collaborators like Combs, record producer Chucky Thompson, and songwriter Big Bub, her sophomore album My Life became an outlet for pent up emotions during their respective dark chapters. Whenever they’re captured listening back to classic tracks like the cover of “I’m Goin’ Down” or “I Never Wanna Live Without You,” you can feel their embedded pains, the shared therapy in between the notes. Likewise when Blige recalls her heartbreakingly traumatic relationship with ex-boyfriend Cedric “K-Ci” Hailey, from the group Jodeci, one still senses the aching fissures that remain.
Even with the affecting recountings, however, the sheen of a highly controlled narrative glosses over this 82-minute documentary. Celebrity interviewees like Alicia Keys, Taraji P. Henson, and Tyler Perry provide very little context to the singer’s career. At other points, I so wished a more incisive hand delved into newer, emotionally precarious terrain, such as Blige’s childhood.
Nevertheless, an accidental kernel of sincerity is often customary in these documentaries of image management. At multiple points, Blige explains her habit of withholding, of sinking into “protection mode.” This film is an extension of said pattern, proving how these emotional focal points still follow this world-renowned artist who effortlessly melds soaring, coarse R&B vocals over infectious hip-hop beats. By falling into restrictive narratives and familiar tones, Roth’s “Mary J. Blige’s My Life” fortuitously provides a love letter to Blige’s fans that teems with the same truthful message as the singer’s best music.
Now playing on Amazon.