Imagine that you're approached by a documentary filmmaker who wants to spend some time with you, film you. You're just a normal person -- let's say a young woman living in New Orleans, money's tight, you're working in a retirement home to try and make ends meet -- with a YouTube channel where you share the songs you wrote, whatever's going through your head. The documentarian is interested in following YouTube musicians, he says, learning about their lives.
Such is the case of Samantha Montgomery, who prefers to be known as Princess Shaw, and "Thru You Princess." When Ido Haar approached her to film, he told MTV News, "I told her what was very true then, I want to do a film about YouTubers, about singers, musicians who upload their materials on YouTube and hope that things will happen."
What Princess didn't know then was that one of her original a cappella songs, "Give It Up," was being tinkered with halfway across the world in Israel by an artist known as Kutiman. Kutiman makes sort of aural found poetry with his "Thru You Too" project, a series of songs that combine edited snippets of music -- think piano recitals, drum improvs and songs like Princess's -- to make a complete song featuring the talents of a handful of musicians who will never meet each other or Kutiman, and never had any idea that their amateur efforts were being turned into a bigger project before Kutiman hits "upload" on his YouTube channel.
Kutiman and Haar are old friends, and Haar planned to track several of the musicians in Kutiman's latest effort, centering around Princess's "Give It Up" vocals, on film. Once Haar met Princess, however, he knew she had a compelling story and chose to focus on her.
What resulted was a viral hit when Kutiman uploaded his "Thru You Too -- GIVE IT UP" track, garnering worldwide recognition and millions of views, and the documentary "Thru You Princess," which had its world premiere this week at Toronto International Film Festival.
"Thru You Princess" is an earnest, sweet and surprising story about the moments in life before we feel like we've really made it. Often in documentaries, the filmmaker is unavoidably present. They conduct interviews with their subjects and are heard off-screen, and it seems very clear how they found their story and what their motivation is. "Thru You Princess," however, is a fly on the wall experience. Through Haar's camera, we see Princess perform a painfully empty gig at a New Orleans nightclub, sparing no breath or enthusiasm with her performance (she sounds a bit like Amy Winehouse, or maybe Adele). Haar is one of the maybe five people there, filming. We see Kutiman eating cereal and watching YouTube videos of elephants in his studio, silent somewhere far, far away. We see him watching Princess's videos, and we see Princess up-close recounting tales of her family in the past, sexual abuse and mistrust and sadness. We see her in line to audition for "The Voice," bouncing around and saying that it's really about the exposure. In the next scene, she's sadly watching the show while at work, dressed in scrubs.
We've landed in the middle of someone's life, with no explanation of how we got there. Things are not going well for Princess. Did Haar ever want to tell her that she had a fan in Israel, someone elevating her homemade videos with their dozens of views into something more?
"I’m doing documentary films and I wanted to catch the moment as if it would be, as if there was no film," Haar said. "It would be uploaded, she would discover it, so this moment if I would tell her before I would ruin what would happen. If I tell her I know someone is doing a music —"
"I would kill you," Kutiman laughed, interrupting. "I don't tell people when I work on these projects."
So then we see also get to see the triumph: Kutiman uploads the video, and eventually, it reaches Princess. She's sitting in a park in Atlanta, then frowns at her phone, trying to read the name someone has mentioned to her in an email or text message. Karruchiman? Kutman? Finally, she gets the video loaded and watches, first staring in disbelief, then alternating between mouthing the words to her own song, now lushly backed by pianos and guitars and drums and strings, and exclaiming that it is "rock sauce! Rock SAUCE!"
It was only after she discovered the video that Haar told her why he was really filming her.
"It was surprise after surprise," Princess told MTV News. "Like oh, did you know? Did you know this? I’m like, are you serious?"
Haar almost didn't get his big reveal, either.
"This was my biggest fear," he said of the possibility of missing Princess' initial reaction to the video. "I knew when the song was going to be released, so I was prepared. The song was released, and she’s not saying anything. In a day I was like, she’s sitting in the diner, every time she looks at her cell phone I am like this. And it doesn’t happen! It takes hours until finally, in the park, she’s like, ‘Karruchiman?’ And then there is no wifi, so we need to move. I’m just like, oh my God. We went near a Starbucks to get their wifi, and the moment she finished the people from Starbucks come out like, 'excuse me, you can’t film.'
"And I’m in Israel like, 'what’s going on, what’s going on, what did she say?'" Kutiman said.
"If they had come like two minutes before I don’t know what I would have done," Haar added.
After the video went viral, Princess has a series of true rock star moments, which I won't spoil here. Remember, only weeks before, she'd been singing to a crowd you could count on one hand in New Orleans. Following the video, we see a montage of dusky venues and glamorous moments strung together.
Suddenly, she's back in her house in New Orleans. Her car, which had the wheels stolen off of it earlier in the movie, is still up on blocks in the driveway. She's wearing scrubs and heading off to work. The movie ends. No "where are they now" chyron, no redemptive message letting us know that in fact Cinderella got to keep the glass slipper and now has a recording contract and will be embarking on a worldwide tour shortly.
In fact, as she told MTV News at a sunny cafe in Toronto, where she traveled with the director and composer to promote the film, she was up to about the same thing as usual. She's been away from YouTube for a bit, she said, because she has nothing to say. "Sometimes you’ll see me back up and then I’ll come back," she said. "It all depends on how I feel."
"I’m not employed right now, looking for a job," Princess said. "I still stay in the same place, my car is gone now, the one with the blocks, it’s gone. Basically I’m doing the same thing, living my life, still singing and hopefully I start getting to record more. I have shows coming up, two shows coming up in New Orleans. So I’m doing the same thing, with the exception of traveling around a little bit [for the film]."
But she seemed sunny. Was she disappointed that her moment of global internet fame hadn't yet yielded a record deal or broader recognition?
No, not particularly.
"I always say I live in the moment of now," Princess said. "I don’t look too far ahead and I definitely don’t look damn back. What happens happens and no matter what happens, I did what I wanted to do and I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the hell out of it. So if it ends tomorrow, I did it. I don’t have any regrets in life, so to get to do this is amazing. To get on that stage and sing in front of people is amazing. To be in a documentary when I don’t know the first thing about movies or anything. It’s a blessing to get to do it. I’m humbled, blessed, and I feel great."