Documentary Review: Courtney Barnett invites us on tour, into her “Anonymous Club”

Australian “slacker rock” star Courtney Barnett and her longtime music video collaborator Danny Cohen team up for a Courtney-and-nothing-but documentary, “Anonymous Club.” It’s not so much an invitation into her world as a peek at it from an almost safe, emotionally-muted distance.

She shows us something of her process, but little of “the Real Courtney” comes through as she and Cohen keep things at a personal arm’s length, if not an emotional one.

Barnett talks about her “feeling sad days,” which produce such self-deprecating singles as “Depreston,” “Anonymous Club,” “Pedestrian at Best” and “Nameless Faceless.” This raw confessional style is her brand. She’s noticed that people “never look up,” they’re always staring at the ground or ahead, or at their cell phones.

“Well time is money and money is no man’s friend. And all eyes on the pavement, I’m not gonna touch ya don’t worry so much about it.”

Cohen gives her a recorder to make an audio diary, where she talks about what she’s doing, the tour she’s on, often just before bedtime. She reads comments from her blog, where she invites fans to talk about rough emotional times they’re going through. And she reads one suggestion about how she should never do another interview again.

It’s only when we see her interviewed — awkward, bored and boring, evading faux complex questions and doing it in the same flat voice (“deadpan,” her fan-critics call it) we hear her sing in that we get it. She’s pretty bad at this part of the career-making exposure.

There are little glimpses of her personal life (she’s gay) and lots of short cuts from her concerts, large venues and small, sing-alongs with fans and one or two actual interactions with them.

There’s little about that screams “rock star,” with her unruly Chrissie Hynde mop and obscure, Ani DiFranco-meets-Chrissie songs-as-therapy songbook. I dare say she could walk most city streets and not earn a second glance — no hint of glam to her.

Honestly, I didn’t get enough of the music and the “process” — picking out tunes to go from long, closely-typed pages of lyrics and phrases in the studio — to come to a conclusion about her as an artist, other than the voice is nothing special squared.

The film’s aesthetic mistake is in limiting the movie just to her, denying us any vocal or visual variety, not letting the folks who made her an AIR (Australian Independent Records) awards maintstay, onetime Grammy nominee and global touring hit tell us why she’s special.

Kurt Vile is her fellow “slacker rock” star and has written for her and performed with her. She doesn’t need his validation, but one monotonous voice makes for a monotonous movie.

At one point, she covers “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” — an apt choice, considering her self-confessed malaise — so plaintively and emotionally flat I almost cried.

One gets a hint that maybe her inspiring backstory — a ballerina’s daughter, self-produced and distributed debut LP (five years before a “Best New Artist” Grammy nod), “born in Sydney, raised in Hobart (Tasmania), based in Melbourne” rise to stardom — makes better copy than hard analysis of why the work speaks to so many.

The audio diary is something of a non-starter, in which Barnett sounds weary, references “Nico, the singer” and suggests “I was an EMO kid before I knew what “EMO” was,” as if we hadn’t figured that out.

All of which circles round to my original point. “Anonymous Club” isn’t an invitation. Don’t know the lyrics? Kind of hard to make them out. Underwhelmed by this guitar snippet or that one? Well, she does like the label “slacker garage rock.”

Leave this one to the fans.

Rating: unrated

Cast: Courtney Barnett

Credits: Scripted and directed by Danny Cohen. An Oscilloscope Laboratories release.

Running time: 1:23

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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