Hot Docs Review: Courtney Barnett's 'Anonymous Club' Is a Intimate Glimpse into Artistic Self-Doubt Directed by Danny Cohen

Hot Docs Review: Courtney Barnett's 'Anonymous Club' Is a Intimate Glimpse into Artistic Self-Doubt Directed by Danny Cohen
Photo courtesy of Hot Docs
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The tour behind Courtney Barnett's 2018 album Tell Me How You Really Feel was fantastic, with noisy shows that emphasized ferocious grunge over the ruminative lyricism she's usually associated with. The tour documentary Anonymous Club, on the other hand, emphasizes the quiet pensiveness going on behind the scenes.

The film was built around an audio diary that Barnett kept for three years at the request of director Danny Cohen. Barnett's narration provides the through line for the film's impressionistic look at life on tour, with quiet moments backstage or on the bus intercut with partial live performances and snippets of interviews. 

Cohen doesn't shy away from highlighting the most awkward moments possible, like a German TV interviewer pressing Barnett about who her angry lyrics are directed at, or a fan who asks Barnett to write a very long chunk of lyrics on the back of his T-shirt (resulting in her struggling to remember how the lines go). Amidst all this, Barnett speaks candidly about self-doubt and sadness, opening up about how she doesn't understand the purpose of her own art and how she struggles to adequately express herself in interviews.

For all of the accolades that Barnett has earned, she focuses largely on dissatisfaction rather than celebration. She paraphrases Nico, saying, "When I had nothing, I wasn't happy, and when I had everything, I wasn't happy." Soon after, the screen goes black, and we hear Barnett hacking at two bluesy chords while repeatedly singing, "Stick a needle in my eye / I wanna die." Many of the voice notes sound like they were recorded in the morning, with Barnett croaking messages to Cohen, her throat ragged from the concert the night before.

Anonymous Club is beautifully shot on 16 mm film, its images from the road resembling a series of video postcards. One absolutely gorgeous moment features snowy mountains giving way to desert plains as seen from the tour bus, a series of atmospheric guitar strums echoing in the background.

The cinematic visuals bridge the two very distinct parts of the film, as the malaise of the first half gives way to the more serene second half. Barnett carefully coaches herself through feelings of self-doubt while on a solo tour without her band, and her more positive outlook can be heard as she begins working on the optimistic songs that eventually become 2021's Things Take Time, Take Time, like the weightless pop melodies of "Write a List of Things to Look Forward To" and the tender "Sunfair Sundown." Working with co-producer Stella Mozgawa, Barnett is practically giddy and talks about she feels "so happy" and "really inspired."

It's a soothing redemption arc, offering compelling insight into how commercial and critical success do little to help an artist's mental health. Many ambitious, creative people like to imagine that, once their dreams come true, then they will be happy; Anonymous Club shows that the reality is much more nuanced.

Hot Docs Festivals runs online and in-cinema from April 28 to May 8. Get details at the festival's website. (Monoduo Films)