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ANONYMOUS CLUB (2021) review

August 15, 2022

 

written by: Danny Cohen
produced by: Philippa Campey and Samantha Dinning
directed by: Danny Cohen
rated: unrated
runtime: 89 mnin.
U.S. release date: October 12, 2022 (Music Box Theatre, Chicago, IL)

 

“Anonymous Club” is a documentary that follows Courtney Barnett that began filming four years ago when music video director Danny Cohen tasked the notoriously guarded Australian singer/songwriter to keep an audio diary on an analogue Dictaphone. The goal was to capture unfiltered reflections from Barnett, in particular her own struggles with confidence, self-perception, and the pressures of success. Barnett and Cohen, both based out of Melbourne, already had a working relationship from the many creative music videos they worked on together, but this assignment would be incorporated into his first documentary. It turns out, these audio snippets, are just a small part of this inviting travelogue documentary.

It’s not surprising that Barnett supplies Cohen with such raw and vulnerable material, considering she makes space for others to do the same. The title of the documentary likely comes from a submission Barnett had on her website with a comment section asking visitors to share how they really feel. Barnett can be heard saying, “It’s been really humbling and beautiful reading what people are willing to share and to open about”, referring to the thousands of submissions she received. If it wasn’t for the artist including such challenging themes as panic attacks, depression, loneliness and the complexities of love, her fans would clearly not feel comfortable opening up themselves with such raw entries like, “feeling lonely, but I don’t know why” and “feeling exhausted, but don’t want to show it”. Barnett can be heard sharing how she feels overwhelmed by the amount of commenters who posted, “I feel tired” and “I feel hopeless” and “I feel alone”, and then she adds maybe they’re not so alone. Here is this anonymous place that Barnett provides, where a release is made available. Maybe that’s what Barnett’s music does for her listeners. Reassures them that there’s someone else out there who feels as they do. It’s no wonder her album from 2018 is titled “Tell Me How You Really Feel”.

 

 

For “Anonymous Club”, Cohen spent three years on tour with Barnett and her band, following her on and off stage and in hotel rooms, in Europe, Asia, and the States. There’s also footage from Melbourne, using a one-man crew and a 16mm camera, offering an exclusive, immersive experience.

Cohen is counting on some viewers being Barnett virgins and includes title cards early on with information about the artist. We’re told how in 2012 Barnett began releasing music from her bedroom through her own label, Milk! Records. How her debut album “Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit” was released in 2015 and it sold over 500,000 copies worldwide, resulting in Barnett receiving a Grammy nomination for “Best New Artist”. A follow-up album “Tell Me How You Really Feel” was released in 2018. We then see brief glimpses of her appearances on Jimmy Fallon and Ellen Degeneres, confirming how far she’s come in such a short amount of time. It’s obvious her music has resonated with her listeners and word-of-mouth of such impact has struck a global consciousness.

While this is far from a concert film, the footage of Barnett on stage reveals just as much honesty as the time Cohen provides with her reflecting on a tour bus or strumming her guitar on a hotel bed. Despite her off stage struggles, she commands the stage, releasing an onslaught of energetic guitar work and raspy, meandering vocals with her subtle Aussie twang. Songs like “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch” provide the singer with a cathartic outlet, yet such a song often results in her being subjected to inane questions, like when a talk show hosts in Europe asks her who she’s mad at. That’s his first question in front of a live audience. No wonder it’s a challenge for her to open up anywhere else, but in her lyrics.

Barnett and Cohen’s closeness is evident in the audio diary entries we hear from her that he includes throughout “Anonymous Club”. These are candid, open-hearted, stream-of-consciousness thoughts, where a sincere albeit often fatigued Barnett shares her doubts, frustrations, and pondering contemplations. When she shares, “Some days it can be so liberating and electric and energetic and alive,” and then, “It feels like I’m being part of this scripted performance … and it just feels really pointless, some may think here is a successful artist who should just get over herself and be grateful. But, that’s not how mental illness works. Whether or not you’re an artist, anxiety and depression is fickle and has no schedule. It can hit you when you’re up or down, without explanation for yourself or those around you.

 

 

She can also be heard reciting what is essentially a gratitude list. So, all of this is her working things out and that’s more than most of us do. If Barnett can influence others to do the same, as cliché as it sounds, the world would be a better place…at least for some people. This isn’t just some depressed artist going on and on. She’s actually working all these things out in a deeply personal way, not just in song, but also in these therapeutic audio entries.

Despite her reputed guarded nature, some of the best moments of “Anonymous Club” come from her impromptu interactions with her fans. One young Chinese man in Shanghai asks her to write his favorite lyrics, “I’d rather stay in bed, with the rain over my head/Than have to pick my brain up off of the floor” from the song, “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party” on the back of his blank white t-shirt after a concert. She’s surprised yet game and he’s absolutely elated, helping her with reciting her lyrics as she writes them out with a Sharpie on his back. Backstage before a solo show at the Castle Theatre in Bloomington, Illinois, Barnett shares with Cohen her thoughts on the packed house she’s about to go out to. “It’s going to be a very attentive audience,” she shares, “I’m scared. It’s going to be quiet.” She reaffirms (primarily to herself) that it’s not quite “because they hate me”, but rather because it’s a quiet room and they are listening politely. Barnett is projected here how she feels as an audience member in a packed, quiet theater for a solo performer, which is how someone with anxiety often processes their feelings. But, she’s talking herself through all this, while going through physical exercises such as leg stretches and vocal warm-ups. Minutes later we see her walk out and open up with the Hanks Williams Sr. classic, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”.

Then in a Northampton, Massachusetts solo show we see her respond to audience questions, such as “How are you?”, which likely refers to the closeness her fans feel to her through her music. Barnett smiles and responds, “I feel great” and then a homemade coffee mug is handed down through the crowd, made by a fan named Emily. Barnett is touched. Vulnerability and honesty is reciprocated. It’s a great thing to see.

“Anonymous Club” is often quite reflective. Not just in what Barnett shares, but also the life-on-the-road that Cohen captures on camera. Snowy roads amidst snow-capped mountains in the horizon or bare trees reaching out to a gray sky outside a hotel window. It all captures a certain romanticism of touring and experiencing people and places while on tour.

While I’m just getting to know Barnett and her music, I find it surprising that some critics are including hyperbole in their reviews, like Barnett is “one of the greatest singer/songwriters”, but they’re probably coming from a place of fandom and “Anonymous Club” does feel first and foremost for the fans. “Still, I’ve emerged as a fan after seeing this documentary and I’m looking forward to seeing her live and being part of a music community that feels a little less alone when they’re together, listening to Barnett live.

 

 

RATING: ***

 

NOTE: Courtney Barnett brings her Here and There Festival tour to the Salt Shed in Chicago on August 16th (get tickets here) and she will make an appearance the following night at the Music Box Theatre for a Q&A to follow a screening of “Anonymous Club (tickets for that event can be found here

 

 

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