I first encountered the Israeli musician and producer Kutiman on a comp of tracks from the Melting Pot label. The song he contributed, “No Groove Where I Come From,” with its wide open rubberband space-funk, leapt out immediately. I filed his name away as a dude worth keeping tabs on, but it wasn’t long until I stumbled across him again, this time as the creator of a wild multimedia project called Thru You which chopped up snippets from the farthest reaches of YouTube and reshaped them as fully fleshed out tracks. Back in that relative stone age of 2009, when we were still referring to social media as “web 2.0,” this was one of the most inventive things to come along. I mean, TIME Magazine put it on their "50 Best Inventions" list that year along with an AIDS vaccine and NASA’s Ares Rockets. Kutiman’s 2014 follow up, Thru You Too, was pretty much the same trick as the first go round, and by this point the novelty of the process had worn off a bit. The first track from that second project, “Give It Up,” resonated more than anyone had expected and pulled in a million views in just a few days.

Despite placing viral track at its very core, with that long tail of interesting musical tidbits trailing behind it, almost none of the backstory I just rattled off is to be found in the recent documentary Presenting Princess Shaw. For real, go take a minute or two and familiarize yourself with Kutiman and those various Thru You websites because despite being the guy behind the whole thing that set this movie off, he is hardly seen on screen. Instead, filmmaker Ido Haar focuses almost entirely on the voice that drives the track, Princess Shaw herself, and we’re much better off for it.

Samantha Montgomery, known to her then-dozens of YouTube followers as the pink-haired Princess Shaw, was just another awkwardly aspiring singer on that site probably still best known for clips of cats jumping in and out of boxes. There, she joined the masses who were making a name for themselves by oversharing to no one in particular, pouring themselves out in very raw and shockingly unselfconscious ways. Princess Shaw read poetry in some clips and confided about sexual abuse she endured in another, when she wasn’t plugging open mics where she was planning to perform. Then, she posted a clip titled “Original song needs a beat....help!!!!” which Kutiman found some way or other (the clips that bookend it on her feed have racked up just 300 views between them) and draped her voice with some silky soul production spliced together out of equally obscure musical detritus, all without any of those contributors’ knowledge.

The filmmakers follow Princess Shaw around New Orleans, under the pretense of presumably... documenting a random YouTube singer... I guess? She never really seems to question why these guys are trailing her with their camera, and the crew never tips their hand that they know she’s about to end up with significantly more fame than she had at the time. At one point we see Princess Shaw as she treks to an audition for The Voice, chatting with other randos in line who are equally wide eyed at the possibility of being plucked from obscurity to have their obvious talents applauded.

With Princess Shaw, the person, we get a peek at life behind the scenes of all the well-meaning, and legitimately talented, folks who don’t make the cut on those early cattle call episodes of the America’s Got the Voice of an Idol type shows where large plastic cups of soda seem to play an oversized role. Surrounded by their supportive families these earnest strivers are told by the judges to never give up on their dreams, but no, they won’t be moving on for reasons that are unsaid but seemingly boil down to not having that elusive “it” factor.

Intercut with this footage of the Princess Shaw on her grind, we see Kutiman working and putting together the tracks for his Thru You follow up. Unbeknownst to Princess Shaw, she’s become something of a muse for him. When he’s finally ready to put it out there in the world, we watch as Princess Shaw hears it for the first time. He just sends it to her like “Hey I made this and hope you like it.” She doesn’t quite get it, other than thinking it’s a pretty dope mix backing her up. Then the New York Times and People Magazine and the Huffington Post drop features on the track and it all starts to settle in on her that this is no small thing. If you can watch as she tearfully lays it all out on the phone for her mom and not choke up a little bit, then you’re made of stone.

There are lots of different ways that Presenting Princess Shaw could have gone, focusing on Kutiman’s process, perhaps, or digging into the academic implications of his particular approach to purposeful content-plundering, but the direction they settled on feels the most human and ultimately very real. I doubt that Princess Shaw will stretch her fame past this one fifteen minute window, but I get the sense that the amount of validation she’s gotten from it will carry her through life much more satisfied with herself than other folks in her position, but who knows. I hope she proves me wrong.

With Princess Shaw, the person, we get a peek at life behind the scenes of all the well-meaning, and legitimately talented, folks who don’t make the cut on those early cattle call episodes of the America’s Got the Voice of an Idol type shows where large plastic cups of soda seem to play an oversized role. Surrounded by their supportive families these earnest strivers are told by the judges to never give up on their dreams, but no, they won’t be moving on for reasons that are unsaid but seemingly boil down to not having that elusive “it” factor.

Intercut with this footage of the Princess Shaw on her grind, we see Kutiman working and putting together the tracks for his Thru You follow up. Unbeknownst to Princess Shaw, she’s become something of a muse for him. When he’s finally ready to put it out there in the world, we watch as Princess Shaw hears it for the first time. He just sends it to her like “Hey I made this and hope you like it.” She doesn’t quite get it, other than thinking it’s a pretty dope mix backing her up. Then the New York Times and People Magazine and the Huffington Post drop features on the track and it all starts to settle in on her that this is no small thing. If you can watch as she tearfully lays it all out on the phone for her mom and not choke up a little bit, then you’re made of stone.

There are lots of different ways that Presenting Princess Shaw could have gone, focusing on Kutiman’s process, perhaps, or digging into the academic implications of his particular approach to purposeful content-plundering, but the direction they settled on feels the most human and ultimately very real. I doubt that Princess Shaw will stretch her fame past this one fifteen minute window, but I get the sense that the amount of validation she’s gotten from it will carry her through life much more satisfied with herself than other folks in her position, but who knows. I hope she proves me wrong.

This might have been an offbeat pick as an entry in this column about music docs, but I think it scales up really well when viewed as a microcosm of the music industry. I mean, it was hard to not pick up on echoes of how Mark Ronson helped elevate Amy Winehouse when he introduced her to the Dap Tone Horns, to say nothing of the treadmill of aspiration that so many musicians find themselves on until they get that random leg up by being in the right place at the right time and taking their shot. Fame is a weird thing and Presenting Princess Shaw does an excellent job subtly unpacking the more capricious nature of fortune’s fickle finger.

Share This