From acclaimed filmmaker Vanessa Roth, the documentary Mary J. Blige’s My Life, which is available to stream at Amazon Prime Video, celebrates and reflects on the 25th anniversary of the trailblazing 1994 My Life album from recording artist Mary J. Blige. The incomparable singer, producer, and actress with multi-platinum albums, Grammy Awards, and Academy Award nominations, deserves the icon status and “Queen of Hip Hop Soul” title that she’s achieved, but her road to success also included battles with abuse, depression, and addiction, and her personal story has connected with millions of fans around the world.
During this 1-on-1 interview with Collider, Roth talked about how she came to direct this documentary, what she most connected to with the story they set out to tell, her process for shaping the film, how inspiring it was to have a subject that was so open and self-reflective, what made her want to be a storyteller, and where she’d like to take her career next.
Collider: How did you end up directing this documentary about Mary J. Blige?
VANESSA ROTH: It came my way by Mary [J. Blige] and Mary’s team, Nicole [Jackson] and Ashaunna [Ayars], who work for Blue Butterfly with Mary. And then, the executive producers, Tara [Long], Mark [Ford] and Kevin [Lopez], from Entertainment One and Creature Films, and Amazon came to me and wanted to make a film that showcased this moment in Mary’s life and this iconic album and, at the same time, tell that human story of what she was going through at that time. We all just really agreed on the ethos of the film.
Since you hadn’t done music documentaries and you aren’t one of those directors who has a background in music videos, what made you want to do this?
ROTH: That’s a good question. It was something that was scary to me, to be asked to do it thinking, “Who am I to make a music doc about Mary?,” and all of those things you said. But at the end of the day, and this is what I think is just also very special about Mary herself, she trusts her instincts and her gut, and what she wanted this to be was a music doc about this pioneering music, but it’s about her and it’s this love letter from herself now to that younger Mary. My films before this, that’s what they’re about. They’re about what connects us to each other. When I kept that in mind, then it wasn’t so scary. She’s done all of these amazing things, and at the same time, she’s still this person who feels things and needs to heal from things and shares that with people. It’s about that child she was, that evolution of that child, and who she is today, and I understand that. I can tell that story. I think that’s what made it okay for me to do this film.
Had you been familiar with her music? Did you know much about her before doing this, or did you give yourself a crash course?
ROTH: A little of both. Yes, of course, I knew her music and I knew who she was, but I’ve also had a major education in her music, in her history, in hip-hop in that area of New York. I lived in New York t the time that she made this album, but I wanted to learn about her New York and her experience, and what she meant and means to culture and fashion and people and social justice and women and women of color, and all of these different levels of what Mary represents, that I really didn’t know and I’m so glad to now know all of it.
On a personal level, how do you know when you know enough to do a documentary? Is knowing how much to know and how much to include always the struggle?
ROTH: To me, that is the process of making the film. I try very much to stay open and curious and just listen. I don’t go into something expecting that I know everything. I actually go the opposite. I almost feel like the more that I’m open to just hearing and taking things in through the process is how the film gets made. It’s a domino effect of understanding that you need this and then this. I also really rely on the collaborations I have with people who do know so much more than I do about whatever it is that I don’t know enough about, or that it’s not my place to either have an opinion about or have a vision of. I really rely on other people to tell me, “This is how it feels and this is how this is,” and then go from there. I definitely don’t try to learn everything before I start.
You’ve done a number of different documentary projects, and you don’t necessarily know where things will lead and where you’ll end up with documentaries, so how do you decide whether you think there’s enough in a specific subject to pursue it? Do you have a process for deciding if something is just not right for you?
ROTH: I think I do listen to my instincts about whether I think that there’s something in a story to excavate. I’m drawn to stories that are gonna be maybe following a story, but at the same time, they have to really be about something else. There has to be a theme of something that we’re really trying to tell. You can have a structure and a format of something, but to me, all of that is just piling onto what it’s about. With Mary, for this film, we had so much to go on, and so much heart and pain and trauma, but also empowerment and inspiration and evolution of a person. That made it a very easy choice, aside from also just how iconic she is.
This film is so beautifully done. How was your process of putting this film together, in the cut that we see now, with the footage of her performing, the footage of her talking about her music and her own life, and then the interviews with other artists, and all of these fans talking about how much her music means to them? What was it like to get this to where we see it now?
ROTH: It is this collage of all of these things that are woven together to make one piece. We put the animation in there too, to really tell the story of that young Mary that grows into who she is today, and the music. It’s a process. There is the filming, and then a lot of documentary filmmakers do this and I do too, the writing of the documentary is really in the editing. My editors and I, every day, with a lot of help, were really going through it with our researchers to see what we had and how we could tell a story that’s gonna actually have this essence of this theme throughout. It’s a process of throwing a lot of stuff to the side that wasn’t working and trying other things. But at end of the day, we had Mary, and I just feel like you can’t go wrong. It’s gonna be beautiful because Mary’s beautiful.
Did you keep track of how many times you listened to the My Life album while you were making this?
ROTH: Oh, my God, that’s a funny question. I listened to it a lot, every song. Every time we were cutting a certain area, we’d keep going back and going back and going back. What I also loved is that I really got to know all of the samples and really also appreciate the storytelling that came from those samples and how personal those were to her and what they meant. The brilliance of the layering and the texturing of the storytelling in her music and in hip-hop was also such an education, and I’m so grateful for it.
With everything she’s been through and everything she talked about, were you ever surprised at how self-reflective Mary J. Blige was for this?
ROTH: Because I was brought in at a moment where the whole point was for her to be self-reflective, I don’t know that I was surprised by it, but I was inspired by it. I’m just thankful that she was so open and willing to tell a story because that really is what makes her so important to so many of her fans. She continues to do that and to put her life out there for people to say, “Yeah, me too. I understand you.” That’s the conversation that goes back and forth.
What made you realize that you wanted to be a storyteller? Was it choosing the medium of documentary? Was that a deliberate decision for you, or was that just the path your career started down and you kept following it there?
ROTH: Yeah, it was that. I grew up with my dad as a screenwriter and my mom was an archeologist, and I feel like both of those things were really story and about human humanity and what connects people, whether it’s to the past or to each other. I’ve always had that in my bones, really. And then, documentary came because I went to school for social work, knowing that I wanted to tell stories, but I wanted this different perspective and documentary was a really nice blend of social justice, social impact and social issues, with creativity and storytelling. I fell into it and I’m always promising that I’m never gonna do it again because it’s too hard, every time I make one, but I keep making them. It’s been 25 years that I’ve been making documentaries, but they’re hard to make. They’re also rewarding, when I feel like the people who are in them feel heard. That’s my real point for doing them.
Do you have any idea of what you’re going to do next, as a filmmaker? Are you looking to stay in the documentary world? Have you thought about narrative features at all?
ROTH: I’m very open. I also just finished the series I did for Nat Geo, called Impact, which is also about incredible women. It’s just women who you’ve never seen or heard of before, but who are incredible. I love telling those stories. I love telling stories that maybe give another person watching some feeling of strength and support. That doesn’t have to be in documentary. I’m very open to stretching and figuring out things. My big thing is that I love collaborating and I love finding out about things I don’t know much about and people that I haven’t met. At the moment, this past year has been such a confusing time that I’m trying to enjoy that these things are out. I hope people love this film. I hope that the film is healing to them in some way. As a woman filmmaker, maybe the time has also come that I can expand and explore, and people are open to that.
Mary J. Blige’s My Life is available to stream at Amazon Prime Video.
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