As I AM: The Life and Times of DJ AM
Once upon a time, a little girl walked into her parents’ bedroom to find Daddy in bed with a guy. Mommy promptly retaliated by having an affair that left her expecting another child. Mommy eventually returned to Daddy, the two had make-up sex, and she pretended the kid was theirs. That’s how legendary mash-up artist Adam Goldstein — known to his legion of admirers as DJ AM, the funkiest white man on the planet — was born. As I AM: The Life and Time$ of DJ AM tells the story of a life lived on an upward incline.
Those who knew Goldstein called him a “digital shaman,” a DJ who assumed rock-star status. Rock ’n’ roll heaven is overflowing with musicians whose autopsies revealed them to be walking pharmacies, and the name DJ AM was vaguely familiar. Faded memories from a past squandered on print and tabloid TV coverage brought to mind flashes of a pioneering plate-mate remixer who survived an airplane crash only to die of a drug overdose.
Every year finds at least a couple of these tales of lives spent looking good, living fast, and dying young making their way to a multiplex near you. It’s not normally my genre of choice, particularly when one considers how much time is generally wasted on glamorizing the user. But I found myself drawn to veteran rockumentarian Kevin Kerslake’s unflinching honesty, and his refusal to stop at standard transcriptions of talking heads.
As I Am
During a prenatal domestic quarrel, mother Goldstein pointed at her distended abdomen, and with vengeance in her throat informed her husband, “You see this? It’s not yours!” Young Adam paid the price for his mother’s momentary lapse in judgment. He was 19 when his father died of AIDS, and the old man carried his resentment for the boy to the grave.
Goldstein honed his art from the backseat of the family car, beatboxing along with the asynchronous directional signals of the blinking red tail lights before him. Childhood friends described their pudgy pal as dangerous, the first kid in the neighborhood to bring drugs to the block. Mom later admitted, “The real reason he turned to drugs was because he knew his father didn’t love him or like him.”
Goldstein no more invented mashups than he did the wheel, but he was the first to mix in public, thus kicking the practice to a new level. Suddenly, staid ’80s-style nightclubs were infused with a style and energy that would soon be copied worldwide.
At the height of his popularity, Goldstein came face-to-face with two insurmountable addictions — drugs and the Hollywood scene — that he would spend the rest of his life waging personal wars against. His starting pay per gig was $40 in cash, a gram of coke, and all the cans of Budweiser he could down. This led to personal appearances at well-paid VIP shindigs hosted by the likes of Madonna and Tom Cruise. Celebrity endorsements soon followed, along with side work as an E! Grammy correspondent and Vegas headliner. (Long before Trump Steaks, gourmands were treated to DJ AM’s Milk & Krunchies Crispy Treats.)
“You know you’re an addict when you’re smoking crack to go to sleep,” recalls friend Shane Powers. Amazingly, Goldstein successfully kicked the habit(s), and for a ten-year period, meditation became the new medication. His MTV series Gone Too Far was much more than a carefully crafted career move to cover the footprints of embarrassingly well-publicized bad lifestyle choices.
The film opens with cell-phone footage shot from the passenger seat of a moving car, focusing on an empty road at night. We return an hour later to complete the image, a textbook example of right place, right time synchronicity, as a couple of onlookers just happen to have captured the fiery plane crash that claimed the life of four people. Goldstein and bandmate Travis Barker walked away from the wreckage, but the lure of prescription drugs to alleviate the pain proved too much. He was found dead in his apartment at age 36 from an apparent drug overdose.
Much of the narration comes from the source, an audio recording (taped during his sober period) of what sounds like a Learning Annex seminar Goldstein delivered on how not to screw up your life. Whether it’s a swooping camera passing through the empty pews of a church where AA meetings are held, cherry-picked archival clips, and even atypically superb animated re-creations, Kerslake finds just the right pictures to illuminate Goldstein’s disembodied voice-over. And he does so without ever resorting to visual redundancy. So compelling is his handling of the material that by the time it was over, I felt as though I had lost a friend.