It’s hard to overstate the importance of DJ AM.
He revolutionized the art of the turntable, transforming club music from boring, safe, and bland techno to exciting trans-genre fusions. There is hardly a DJ today who isn’t influenced in some way by the trail AM blazed. As I AM: The Life and Times of DJ AM sets out to honor its subject and preserve his legacy, and, while it has its moments of power, a lack of focus and depth prevent the film from doing its subject justice.
As I AM is, on the surface, a well made documentary. It’s briskly paced and stylish, paying homage with every edit to the music that was the very soul of its subject. Pleasant to watch and entertaining, the film serves as an effective primer on, well, the life and times of DJ AM, aka Adam Goldstein. Unfortunately, it never really goes much deeper than that, with its only aim seemingly to be a (perhaps overly) reverential list of bullet points about the peaks and valleys of Goldstein’s life.
While it does move, the film never settles into a flow, switching between subject and time with a surprising liberality. Just as it starts getting a groove in talking about its subject’s exploding career, it makes a hard switch to his struggles with drugs with little rhyme or reason or discernable segue. It gives the audience a sort of mental whiplash, creating unwelcome breaks in the timeline, making the story occasionally difficult to follow.
Speaking of which, the film never makes clear what story about Goldstein it’s trying to tell. It tells the broadest strokes of his life and career (like a magazine retrospective) yet assumes a certain interest and familiarity with the subject matter, especially when it comes to interviews, rarely clarifying who the interviewee is, exactly, (apart from a hard-to-read full-screen “nameplate”) and why we should listen to them.
Director Kevin Kerslake had excellent access. The interviews range from people such as Goldstein’s own mother to Jazzy Jeff to Steve Aoki and others who knew, worked with, and were close to him, yet the film never goes for anything other than a surface-level analysis of who DJ AM was. Which is unfortunate, because there are moments of real power in these interviews, when the subjects talk about their relationship with Goldstein, the effect he had on them personally, the little quirks he had about his personality, etc.
But these moments are few and far between, with the focus being mostly on advancing the story of Goldstein’s career. By the time the film is over, we don’t really feel like we’ve learned about a man; rather, it feels more we’ve been handed a list of achievements. Kerslake fills out the film with archival videos of Goldstein. When the film lets the videos play and speak for themselves is when it’s at its best. They show AM in more intimate moments — goofy, lively, sometimes vulnerable (of particular note is his talk at an Alcoholic’s Anonymous meeting that acts as a thread of sorts tying the narrative together). They provide a glimpse into the private life of an intensely public figure, and really work to ground Goldstein, helping nudge him from the realm of the mythic in the view of the audience. Watching him work his magic at a club at the peak of his fame, or listening to him rap at a pool party when he was essentially just a kid, it’s all transfixing stuff; there’s just not nearly enough of it.
As I AM: The Life and Times of DJ AM is a shallow recounting of a profoundly interesting man who deserves deeper exploration. That being said, it’s not a bad film and is worth checking out for anyone interested in the subject.