Moby is an unconventional character.
He’s a punk rocker, a man who once, briefly fronted legendary band Flipper, but became a household name with his electronic music. He’s a man who has released two memoirs but still admires reclusive artists. He’s friends with David Lynch and was close to David Bowie.
He references Werner Herzog and Thomas Pynchon. He has seen a lot of music documentaries.
He has now made his own, Moby Doc, a film that is told in an unconventional way. There are no talking heads, other than Lynch, and sometimes Moby himself talking on the telephone or to his therapist.
Moby knows there are plenty of bad music documentaries out there, particularly now with the glut of PR promo-packets disguised as films that are flying around on streaming services.
As he tells Deadline below, he and director Rob Bralver, threw out the first cut of the film, which began six years ago, for being too traditional.
Moby Doc is released via Greenwich Entertainment theatrically and on digital platforms on May 28.
DEADLINE: How does it feel to have Moby Doc done and almost out there?
MOBY: If I’m being honest, and anyone who’s ever made a movie is going to laugh at what I’m about to say, which is, I never knew it was going to be so hard to actually make a movie. Which is kind of like at the end of Fitzcarraldo, if Werner Hertzog’s character would have said, who knew that pulling a boat over a mountain would be so challenging. So, I feel really, like abashed, and kind of silly, admitting that I didn’t know that making a movie was as logistically and at times, bureaucratically challenging, as it was. But having said that, I guess that’s the nuts-and-bolts side, insofar as I have a semblance of objectivity around it, I actually think it’s a really, honest, interesting, idiosyncratic movie, and at the risk of being immodest, I’m actually quite proud of it.
DEADLINE: You’re talking about the practical challenges rather than the emotional challenges about making a film about yourself?
MOBY: I would say, in every way. There was an original cut that was done a few years ago, that was very plain, and the way this current iteration came to be is, the editor, Rob, who had worked on the cut, after I rejected the cut, he came to me and said, ‘I know that cut was pretty anodyne, but I think there’s really something potentially interesting here. What if we sort of, take what’s been done and add a lot more to it, and approach it in a very unconventional way’. I thought that made a lot of sense.
DEADLINE: That’s interesting you say there was a pretty anodyne cut of this as I was going to ask what made you go down the slightly unconventional route?
MOBY: The original idea, which goes back 5 or 6 years, was to document the making of an acoustic album, that I never actually ended up making. I guess that maybe, slowly over time, morphed into this album that I’m releasing at the end of May, which is an orchestral album.
The original iteration, it was not bad, per se, but I used to be a doc judge at Tribeca Film Festival, and I was a documentary judge at International Documentary Association, so, I have seen possibly more music documentaries, than almost any person on the planet, and as a result, with this, the director, Rob and I, we sort of gave ourselves two broad baseline goals, which was to try to make something that was honest, and also to try and make something that was idiosyncratic and unlike any music documentary I’d ever seen. As we know, a lot of music documentaries can be very interesting, but structurally, they do, and I’m trying to be very diplomatic and polite, they tend to all conform to the same basic chronological structure.
DEADLINE: D.A. Pennebaker’s Dont Look Back, kind of ruined it for everybody, right?
MOBY: Yes. I mean, there are some classics. Gimme Shelter, as well, which I just recently re-watched and I like the genius of letting the material speak for itself and not editorializing, so kudos to them, I mean, what almost 50 years ago, for recognizing that they didn’t need to gild the lily. The material was so powerful and I don’t know if they’re aware of how representative it was on almost like a fantasy level. Like this was the end of the hippies and they didn’t need a voiceover saying, and this was the end of the hippies.
DEADLINE: There’s essentially two types of music documentaries: there’s films with an interesting story to tell and then there’s promotional movies, basically EPKs with a higher budget.
MOBY: Oh, yeah. I was describing this movie to an ex-girlfriend of mine, while we were working on it, and I fully know, that this seems like a gratuitous exercise in narcissism. I happily accept that on the surface, that’s what it looks like. I guess my hope is that people will be able to get past their understandable prejudice, their empirically-supported prejudice, and actually watch the movie, because I think the movie itself, is not a gratuitous EPK or narcissism at large.
DEADLINE: The music documentaries that are most interesting, to me, at least, are the ones where something goes wrong like Dig! with the Brian Jonestown Massacre or the Metallica doc Some Kind of Monster. Were you aware of that while you were making this?
MOBY: A little bit. I completely agree with you, that there are the gratuitous EPK documentaries and then there are the wonderful films like Dig, Gimme Shelter, Some Kind of Monster. In a weird way, this one is different from both categories. If I went to Kim’s video, if that still existed, it would be in the music documentary section, but I mean, the inspiration was not any music documentary. The inspiration was more like, absurdist at times, surrealist, nonlinear, experimental filmmaking.
DEADLINE: Did that help you process making it? As you say, making a doc like this can be somewhat of an exercise in narcissism.
MOBY: It helped that there’s no producer. There was no one at a streaming service or a network, saying it has to be conventional in this way. I love good conventional filmmaking, and I love aesthetic cohesion, and I love clear narrative, but, and I know what I’m about to say is so self-evident, but at the same time, it’s not because no one seems to understand this, all structure is arbitrary. When I was growing up, like I went to SUNY Purchase, and I was a philosophy major, but I had a lot of friends in what was then the last remaining experimental film program in the United States, in terms that you could get a degree in Experimental Film, and as a result we spent a lot of time discussing fluxes and the situationist, and were obsessed with Bunuel and Dali, and recognizing structure is arbitrary. Why would you conform creativity to what is inherently an arbitrary structure?
DEADLINE: I can see why David Lynch is in the film.
MOBY: I think his greatest movie is Inland Empire. It’s so phenomenal, because it starts off structured, and then the structure fractures, so flawlessly, it’s really fascinating. There’s definitely like that Lynchian element of use structure when it serves what you’re doing, but don’t inhibit or compromise or conform the creative process to what is, a sort of rigid unnecessarily arbitrary structure.
Also, because the cost of production. Some of it was produced really well. We have a beautiful Alexa camera shooting in 6k with a great drone operator and a great DP, and then some of it was shot on a phone, and some of it was shot on a 5D, some clips are ripped from YouTube. If you realize there’s a hole in the narrative, or there’s something you want to make, you take the 5D and you shoot in your backyard, and it costs nothing, and that gives you a creative license, as opposed to being on set with a 120 people.
DEADLINE: How much time did you spend looking for archive? I was half expecting there to be some footage of you in the Vatican Commandos, or fronting Flipper.
MOBY: If that footage had existed, it absolutely would have been used. Rob, the director, he ferreted out stuff that I didn’t even know existed. So, like really all the archival stuff, that’s just him going insane on YouTube, and finding stuff that I didn’t even know was there.
DEADLINE: What’s your relationship with Rob? He made some music videos for you in the past, right?
MOBY: The only way I can describe it is, it’s just really fun. Once we decided, apart from David Lynch, to have no talking heads in the movie, because I have seen so many movies, where that’s the device and sometimes it’s great but if everyone’s doing it, why do we need to do it, then the question was, if you remove the most common ubiquitous narrative device in documentary film, how then do you tell the story? I could talk to a dog. We could use puppets. We could use cartoons. We can do anything, and that was the relationship we had. There was, you know, no idea is too weird or too stupid to at least try.
DEADLINE: You’ve been a talking head in quite a few yourself, right?
MOBY: Oh, yeah. Again, sometimes, if it’s issue-oriented and if you’re trying to explain something very succinctly, then it’s perfectly fine. And some people do it incredibly well, but also, to your point earlier about staying away from creating a sort of just fancy EPK, the idea was to not make it biographic. This is not a glorification of an individual. This is not trying to make someone look good. And once you dispense with that, you have a lot of latitude and freedom.
DEADLINE: I’m generally quite cynical when I see a music doc that has the star as the exec producer. But you seem to be able to be somewhat critical of yourself.
MOBY: Maybe it’s a degree of self-directed objectivity, that might be the result of years of therapy. It might be the result of being an only child and constantly trying to assess one’s role into like broader context. It also might be, as a music producer for years, I can just exclusively work with myself, so I almost have to throw a switch in my brain to try and gain objectivity around the things I’m working on. Maybe it’s almost like a neurological switch that I have that other people might not have. When in doubt, throw yourself under the bus.
If you think you’re being a little too nice to yourself, if you think you’re making yourself look too good, just make yourself look like garbage. Like there’s one scene in the movie where I talk about waking up covered in poop, and I don’t know whose poop it is. That would be an example of time to throw myself under the bus again.
DEADLINE: I imagine a lot of people wouldn’t have included that themselves. Similarly, you include moments that are pretty raw such as missing your mother’s funeral and being on a binge.
MOBY: It’s the result of how much I appreciate when other people are willing to tell their story in an honest way. Like before I wrote the first memoir, I went out and read a ton of autobiographies and memoirs, and the one that really resonated with me was John Cheever’s journals. I mean, he’s my favorite U.S. author, well maybe apart from my Uncle Herman, and his journals are painfully honest, brutally, unflinchingly honest, and I appreciate this, so much, and then it gives me, or the viewer, or the reader, the ability to almost have less shame around their own internal issues. If I’m grateful for other people’s willingness to be honest, then I have to at least aspire to willingness to honesty on my own, and then there’s the nice realization that for the most part, public shame and other people, they can’t hurt you. I understand how easy it is to be trapped by this, but to be so consumed by comments and so consumed by likes or not likes, but luckily one of the greatest luxuries is our obsession with the opinions of other people is elective.
DEADLINE: That makes sense, but wouldn’t it be easier just be somewhat reclusive and not share anything?
MOBY: Absolutely. That reclusively, I remember, years ago, like reading about, I think it was Thom Yorke who had taken time off and was living in an obscure place and not talking to people, and I thought to myself, what’s wrong with me that I can’t do that? I love the idea of being like a Thomas Pynchon, of being like a recluse where you only release things every five years and when you do, it’s a big event and like, you don’t talk about things in between. I have so much admiration for the people who can do that. I guess I just accept it, I’m sort of a buffoon loudmouth. I just have never figured out how to be that cool, reclusive character, as much as I admire the people who can do that.
DEADLINE: The other aspect is that it must be much easier to tell this story now than 15 years ago when you were in the middle of the chaos?
MOBY: I would say yes. Luckily I have the ability to live what I think of is a fairly simple life. If I get crucified in the court of public opinion, or if this movie fails, if my records fail, luckily, I can still pay the rent and I can still make smoothies every day. To be real grad student-y, there’s almost like the quantitative and qualitative element. There’s the quantitative, which is being able to make smoothies and eat spaghetti on a daily basis, whether or not people like what I do, or if they don’t. Then the qualitative is more the emotional side, and I realize, and I found it presumptuous, but telling your story, can, best case scenario, be a form of service. One of the goals is you take your experience, especially if it’s potentially unique or honest, and you share it with people, hoping that somehow in that process, you’re maybe, there’s a potential that you’ll be of service.
In so doing, you expose yourself to ridicule, but the realization I had, I guess about 15 years ago, was that the opinion of strangers only hurt you as much as you let them hurt you. I was having lunch with a few friends before the pandemic and they were both so upset at the comments they were receiving on social media, and the people who were attacking them, and I said something to them, that was very self-evident, but they had never thought about. I was like, well, you don’t have to read the comments. They looked at me like, wait, that’s an option? I was like, yeah. I don’t read comments. I don’t read reviews. I don’t look at myself on TV. I don’t Google search myself. Like I know nothing about how I exist as a public figure, and it’s wonderful.
DEADLINE: Talking of records, are you able to listen back to those records given the history?
MOBY: Well, with almost ever record I’ve made or every piece of music I’ve made, when I go back and listen to it, because I’m also the engineer, one of the first things I think of is how I could have done a better job engineering it. So, if I listen to a song, I can sometimes have an emotional reaction to it, but a lot of times, I’ll just be thinking, the vocals should have been compressed or I wish I had used a different preamp on this, or the high hats should sound better. So, it’s hard for me to relax and enjoy listening to my old music, when I have that sort of like hyper-critical engineer voice in my head.
But also, one thing I actually really love doing is revisiting, whether it’s my music or other people’s music, or books or movies, or TV shows, that are time capsules. You know, especially, if I go back and revisit a song of mine and it was written in New York in the late 90s, the world was so different. I was so different. Everything was so different and you could almost say there’s this sense of temporal dislocation where you can live in the present, but also, access the feelings that you had in the past.
DEADLINE: The record I was thinking of in particular was Animal Rights, which as you say in the film, came at a tough time for you.
MOBY: It would be a tough record, if after that, things had gotten worse, or if that had been my last record, I would listen to it and just be filled with self-recrimination, and I’d be beating myself up, but the fact that I was able to continue making records after that, means I go back and listen to it now, and again, if I’m being honest, I think a little bit of my response is I kind of pat myself on the back, and say well done. You made an uncompromising bleak, borderline unlistenable record, at a time when NSync and the Backstreet Boys were their ascendency. I always thought that was part of the job description of a musician or of an artist, or whatever, is to do things that might have no commercial appeal and might even alienate an audience. When I was growing up, that’s what my favorite writers did. That’s what my favorite musicians and my favorite filmmakers, they all experimented. So, I guess I’m a little pleased that I was able to do that.
DEADLINE: Covering Mission To Burma is never considered a wise career move, I guess. Do you think that some of this, and the way that you made the film, has to do with growing up with punk rock?
MOBY: When I was 13-14, basically, culture in the United States was monolithic. It was three network TV channels. It was commercial radio. It was major labels, and that was it. Some of the culture was great. There was still the Godfather. There was still Led Zeppelin. But it was big. Like there was really almost no viable minor alternative culture, and then, when punk rock came along, phonically, of course, it was very exciting. Especially being 13 years old and hearing the Clash for the first time and thinking, wow, this is so much more relevant than Genesis.
The UK punk scene, musically, was phenomenal, sartorially, it was phenomenal. They still, for the most part, all signed to major labels. I mean, the Pistols, as you know were under EMI and then Virgin. They didn’t release it on Rough Trade. The Clash were with Sony. Nothing against major labels, but it didn’t really have that same DIY quality.
Then, all of a sudden, the U.S. punk scene happened and then it was Bad Brains on cassette. It was Minor Threat, or Black Flag on SST, and when you went to a show, the show was being promoted by your friend, and you bought a T-shirt that was made by your friend, and you bought a cassette that was made by your friend. So, DIY just was this natural extension with all the freedom that came along with it. And then the rave scene started, and the rave scene was kind of the same thing. I know that DIY is a very overused acronym, but the DIY ethos, when you spend enough time with that, it just makes sense. It seems so much better than…especially when you hear the horror stories of people getting caught in the studio system, or getting stuck with a major label contract. It seemed like, when you were making a punk rock 7 inch, in 1982, you were somehow connected to Marcel Duchamp., like shaving a star in his head, in 1923.
DEADLINE: It seems like it’s come full circle with this film?
MOBY: A friend of mine, who is a director and a writer, he’s been very frustrated for a while that he can’t get anything made, and again, this is sort of the product of the punk rock world that you and I both know very well. My feeling is if you can’t find someone to pay you to make something, you just make it yourself.
Worst case scenario guess what, no one sees it, but at least you enjoyed making it, as opposed to waiting around because, as we know, like, even in the golden age of content, getting stuff made is hard. Getting stuff made that has integrity that you believe in, that conforms to the original idea, is very, very hard. That’s why I think, go take your camera and make something in your backyard. Just make something on your own, because it’s fun, and you increase the chances you’ll end up with something good.
DEADLINE: You pose a question at this end of this film, asking has it helped? Well, has it?
MOBY: Regarding the movie itself, I mean, it seems, perhaps, again, a little too soloistic to say that, a movie about me, would help me. But at the same time, I think, if the movie is documenting a strange life and all these different processes, then yes, it’s absolutely helped because who knows, maybe a piano will fall out of the sky and crush me in five minutes. But right now, I feel a lightness and apart from climate change and antibiotic resistance, a pandemic, and attacks on democracy, I feel a general lightness, that I never used to feel. And part of it is fueled by, we’ll call it the acceptance that’s the result of empiricism. If you make enough mistakes, eventually you learn, ideally, how to avoid making those mistakes, and you end up in a place where you can accept again, where you are, because to fight against certain things, is so, like foolish to the point of bad absurdity.
DEADLINE: I guess it’s better than ending up as an episode of Behind The Music.
MOBY: Unless you’re talking about the one with, Leif Garrett, where he met his friend that he had put in a wheelchair. Or the episodes of Cribs, where Mariah Carey wears high heels on the treadmill and has five costume changes in the course of one ten-minute episode. I can’t compete with that.