Of late, there’s been no shortage of documentaries about brilliant, troubled musicians whose lives (and deaths) seem to follow an uncomfortably familiar path. Asif Kapadia’s Oscar-winning 2015 movie Amy pieced together a heart-rending account of Amy Winehouse’s rise and fall from a remarkable trove of personal footage provided by the singer’s friends and family. That same year, Brett Morgen’s Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck traced the Nirvana frontman’s path from a cherubic toddler to a stringy-haired, strung-out icon of angst. By juxtaposing musicians’ unhappy childhoods and self-destructive tendencies with their fierce musical genius, both films seem dubious about whether exceptional creativity and personal contentment can co-exist.
As I Am: The Life and Times of DJ AM ticks many of the same boxes as Amy and Montage of Heck (childhood trauma, addiction, tremendous musical dexterity), but somehow has a better grasp of its subject’s humanity than so many movies that have come before. Perhaps that’s because there’s less mythology to filter out: In 2009, the year he was found dead in his New York City apartment after overdosing on crack cocaine and prescription drugs, Adam Goldstein (a.k.a. DJ AM) was one of the most famous DJs in the world, but he wasn’t quite a household name in the manner of Winehouse or Cobain. So what resonates the most throughout the documentary is the way it captures Goldstein as simply a beautiful soul. DJ AM, As I Am argues, was someone whose sobriety actually coincided with his success, whose influence still pervades contemporary music, and whose untimely death was all the more shocking for not seeming inevitable.