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Hot Docs Film Review – ‘Anonymous Club’

Courtney Barnett is not dead. Neither has she retired from the music business. This may not be news to you, but it was to me. You see, my viewing of Anonymous Club, a hyper-intimate film directed by long-time Barnett collaborator Daniel Cohen, was my first exposure to this Australian songwriter, rocker and post-modern philosopher. Since I’ve been conditioned to expect something momentous to happen in films, I figured at some point she would quit the music business, or worse, die tragically and unexpectedly.

Anonymous Club is notable because nothing like that ever happens. Instead, we’re treated to the real-time commentary of an artist navigating the wormholes of interior space, trying to “figure stuff out.” Director Cohen asked Barnett to keep an audio diary in the late ’10s, and then shot 16mm footage on and prior to Barnett’s 2018 tour supporting her long-player Tell Me How You Really Feel. Cohen’s editor, Ben Hall, admirably weaved hours of Barnett’s Dictaphone voice recordings together with Cohen’s often profoundly-mundane film sequences. The result embodies one of her most inspirational lyrics, “Sometimes I get sad / It’s not all that bad.”

Cohen introduced me to Barnett with a montage to her song “City Looks Pretty” from Tell Me. She’s on stage, she’s off stage, she’s backstage. Throughout the film, when Barnett is on stage she’s filmed most often from behind, with more focus put on the audience and how her fans react to her and her music. (Spoiler alert: They love her!) There’s a charming early bit with an autograph-seeking fan, in which she’s not able to recall the lyrics he wants her to write on his shirt.

Filmed walking anonymously through the streets, Barnett shares in voice-over responses to her question – how do you really feel? – after soliciting responses on her website. “There’s a really overwhelming number of, ‘I feel tired.’ ‘I feel hopeless.’ ‘I feel alone.’ A lot of people feel alone.” In the sequence that follows, she performs a group session in a downpour for a crowd of (presumably) some of those same people. “I’m not suicidal / I’m just idling insignificantly,” she belts from “Elevator Operator.” Much of the live footage is essentially silent, accompanied only by the voice-over, the faces in the crowd revealing the deeply personal connection she makes with her audience.

Relentless commerce and the ritualized nature of rock music threaten to render rock a dead art form. Over footage of adoring fans digging her on stage, Barnett addresses that notion. “It’s like that unwritten rule on stage to walk to the front and put your guitar in the air and that corner of the crowd screams. Feels like I’m part of the scripted performance of what we’re supposed to see on stage and it just seems really pointless.” That bit is immediately followed by footage of her gently strumming and singing after a shower in her hotel room. Cohen deftly portrays Barnett’s ability to bring that bathrobe intimacy into the performance hall. Her disarming authenticity defies the shopworn rock cliches.

After watching the film I listened to Tell Me, as well as her earlier work. While I wasn’t surprised by her ease singing about difficult subjects like fragility and depression, I was surprised by how rocky and poppy she is about it on recordings. The film suggests a more languid, navel-gazing style. And yet, her song “Crippling Self-Doubt and a General Lack of Confidence” was described by critic Annie Zaleski as a “spiraling pop standout.”

Now I’m a full-blown fan. I can’t stop listening to this music. Music that sounds like it could’ve existed in the ’90s, when I felt desperately alone. It speaks to me now, as I’m sure it would’ve then. I can relate when Barnett confides in the film, “I don’t feel like doing much except sitting here trying to figure out what life means.” She then shares a haiku she wrote:

Please leave me alone
No, give me attention please
I am so lonely

Her chuckle after she reads it reveals the core of her philosophy – taking the mickey out of some really serious shit. Amen, sister.

This film will be most thoroughly enjoyed by Courtney Barnett’s fans. But I am proof that it’s also a compelling introduction to an influential anti-influencer. She’s on a mission to cope by creating, as she says, “…to empower people who need empowering.” For someone so seemingly unassuming, she couldn’t be more fascinating. Ditto for this film. Watch it several times. Keep on keeping on. You’re not alone.

Anonymous Club is screening as part of the Hot Docs 2022 Canadian International Documentary Festival on now through 8 May. It also screened at the recent SXSW festival in Austin and had its premier at the Melbourne International Film Festival in August 2021.

Visit Courtney Barnett at courtneybarnett.com.au

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