As I AM: The Life & Times of DJ AM

It’s such a good feeling to watch a documentary and feel truly enlightened. This one provides that experience exactly, with some added Hollywood flash, of course. DJ AM was a special guy, and I was so glad to learn about his life.

I didn’t know much about DJ AM, unfortunately, aside from the fact that he dated Nicole Richie for awhile and that the Palm in Vegas turn out the lights in the P and the L on their sign when he died. I’m admittedly not big on DJ and club culture, but there was something that struck me about him, always, in how incredibly normal he looked, and I jumped at the chance to see this film at Tribeca. It also seemed like a hot ticket.

Right off the bat, we’re introduced to the real DJ AM, Adam Goldstein, whose normalcy was further enforced by his real name. Behind all the fame, fortune, and success was a nice, relatable, overweight Jewish kid, and in this film, that really came through. Goldstein was in theory a good kid, raised by an attentive mother, but even she couldn’t prevent him from messing around with drugs. Of course, it didn’t help that his father was a massive toolbag, so it just goes to show what unpredictable results each person’s upbringing can have. It’s all relative.

We also see how, even with all the substance abuse, his talent couldn’t be suppressed. He found beats in everything, and if he couldn’t, he created them himself. He was truly destined to be a DJ, to seek out patterns in unlikely places, to bring songs together in creative ways, and to help people have a good time and think about music in a different way. Occasional snippets of interviews with him——those that don’t ask asinine ego-boosting questions, anyway——reveal just how much of a nerd he was. And all that nerding out led him to become one of the first DJs, as I found out, to pioneer mashups. (It’s weird but pretty neat to think that stuff like this wouldn’t be possible without him.)

Another great element of this documentary is the diversity of sound bites and talking heads amassed. Not only do we hear from his aforementioned mother, but we also hear from a huge number of DJs, producers, and close friends. (I only wish that some of the colorful graphics hadn’t eclipsed their names; sometimes the text was impossible to read.) My uninformed, naive impression of the DJ world had been one of constant competition and publicity-filled feuds, but as far as I could tell, it’s not like that at all. At least in AM’s circle, they all support each other, marvel at each other’s talents, and feed off each other’s energy. They also take it hard when one of their own, like AM, succumbs fatally to a powerful addiction.

The documentation of his struggle with addiction was really wonderful, especially considering how much audio and how little video footage from meetings that director Kevin Kerslake had to work with. It was slickly subtitled and wholly revealing, and as we saw him crawl out of the darkness and into a stage of his life in which he tried to help other addicts, it seemed so impossible that he’d spiral downward again. But he did. (The friend I saw it with actually didn’t know he had died, so the “ending” to the movie came as legitimate shock to him. Ouch.) It made me wonder what someone like him really needed from his friends, even when it seemed like they gave him everything, and he had every resource he could have possibly used. Maybe that’s not enough for certain people. It’s sad.

See this movie, if you can. I’m sure it’ll be released in theaters. You’ll hear Goldstein’s humble, kind, Dane Cook-esque voice, you’ll remember that he was involved in the creation of this gem, you’ll be saddened all over again by his death, and you’ll become more aware of addiction around you.