Devil’s Pie, the new documentary from Dutch filmmaker Carine Bijlsma, is extraordinary because she was able to gain intimate access to one Michael Eugene Archer (aka D’Angelo). Lumped under the 1990’s designation ‘neo-soul’ since his music incorporated gospel, soul, and hip hop with an unclassified but undeniable x-factor (a heady sensual blend of blues, jazz, and rock), D’Angelo achieved superstar status, despite having only released three albums since 1995 (Brown Sugar that year, Voodoo in 2000, and Black Messiah in 2014).
D’Angelo is one of those supremely talented musicians. You hear and recognize his talent in the overlay of soundscapes in his compositions. There’s more than just a groove going down in the cuts. He’s proclaiming the good news he’s hearing to the audience, but the news ain’t easy or clean. It’s greasy and you’ve got to get into it real good and once you do you’ll realize it left you more than a little dirty, but that’s alright. Because D’Angelo will guide you through it, if you let him, back to the bathing light that will wash all that sticky stuff away.
More than from the music though, we know he’s got that something something when we hear other musicians talk about him. In Devils’ Pie, Questlove of The Roots, who was and is a musical partner-in-crime with D’Angelo, preaches about him in reverential tones, much like he does when he shares stories about Prince. Questlove is known as a leader, a musical organizer and arranger, a field general with his eyes and ears constantly open and searching. In his case, that’s the sign of a commander, ever-ready to crack the whip and get down to it.
But with D’Angelo, in his anecdotes, it’s less about steering or guiding towards a production goal. Questlove is also listening and learning, watching a musician who breaks rules with abandon because he hears something else, a calling in the arrangement of notes that only he can understand. And he revels in imperfection, pushing his collaborators to embrace improvisational imprecision. Be sloppy, he dares them, and let it set you free.
The intentionality behind this is certainly what intrigues Questlove. Having heard him speak just the night before at a Tribeca Talks session with Boots Riley, about how, as a kid playing drums and running his father’s doo wop touring shows, he would be fined for not sticking to the exact sound of the recorded tracks and the guidelines laid down by his father, D’Angelo’s approach must have been a hard lesson to learn. But there’s the sense that D’Angelo made it easy.
In the film, Bijlsma wanders around studio rehearsals as D’Angelo and his Vanguard touring band prepare to support Black Messiah. She (and by blessed proxy, we) watch as D’Angelo practices with and listens to each individual member, going over riffs and beats. Plainly, D’Angelo is the man in charge of each and every exchange, but he leads by example. He’s, without a doubt, happiest in this environment, sharing the music – his communal offering – and his infectious spirit.
His love of music was born in the church, meaning he’s caught up in the eternal struggle of existing between the secular and the sacred. Is it wrong for him to make the devil’s music with his angelic instrument?
What I find interesting about these types of questions is this particular subject. D’Angelo still maintains his early boyish innocence and passion, despite all that we know about his tumultuous life since 1995. He has lost people close to him, spiraled in and out of addiction, been arrested, and involved in accidents that could have taken his life. More importantly, he has drifted away from music for long periods. For fans, that 14 year absence between Voodoo and Black Messiah felt like an eternity, but do we ever consider what it was like for him?
Bijlsma’s film respectfully refrains from pushing D’Angelo on the subject, which could be why he granted her as much access as he did. Devil’s Pie is less about exposing the man and his life than offering audiences a glimpse at him and what drives him.
That would be the artistry. It is front and center and it positions Devil’s Pie as a sympathetic portrait of D’Angelo, to be sure, but it reveals a deeper truth, possibly the very heart of his conflicts and struggles.
D’Angelo has God on one shoulder and the Devil on the other. Each one making a play for his soul, and on most days (especially the ones captured in the documentary), God is winning. Of course, his version of God is not ball-and-chained to a specific religious dogma or ideology. His God is creative, sensual, loving. His God keeps that youthful innocence safe.
Which means D’Angelo’s able to make music and release it into the world. And that’s where the problems arise, because the devil on the other shoulder is us. We’re the ones whispering in his ear. We hear the music, recognize the artist, and then we want something more from him, more than those heavenly sounds. We want a piece of his soul, bigger each time. We want him to be our plaything, our sex symbol and we want him where and when we want him. Does he give us what we want? Should he? Or should he remain true to his music, his mission?
Take, for instance, the video for “Untitled” from Voodoo. Everyone knows that one. It made him a sex symbol and an object, a thing trotted out on stage during concerts where women grabbed and clutched at him, attempted to tear his clothing off his body. He enjoyed the adoration until nothing else mattered. People forgot about the music.
Which made him want to hide. Questlove, again, speaks of how D’Angelo sings with that beautiful voice of his, and then hides behind layer after layer of overdubs and instrumental effects. It is a strategic retreat from the devils waiting at the gate.
That’s what makes Devil’s Pie special. Thankfully, Bijlsma convinced him that she wasn’t one of the devils and she shows us a D’Angelo who sings in the studio like no one else is listening, except his God. And we’re all blessed for her effort.