She hugs strangers and loves to declare “Cool sauce!” punctuating the quirky saying with operatic singing of “rock sauuuce!” Samantha Montgomery, known to her YouTube subscribers as Princess Shaw, has positive energy to spare. A recent documentary about her, Presenting Princess Shaw, which we reviewed last week (Presenting Princess Shaw reveals value of success in music without the money — a film review), reveals she didn’t come to her positivity lightly.
She was just another person reaching out to friends, family and strangers via her YouTube channel sometimes with confessions of childhood abuse and sometimes by singing original songs inspired by her life, including and on and off relationship with a girlfriend. When we met her this past March, she was enjoying a tour of film festivals promoting the movie, which is now available on demand (if you order it through Amazon, you support The Independent Ethos). We spent a few minutes with her and Israeli documentary filmmaker Ido Haar, who spent a little more than a year, commuting to the U.S. to document Montgomery, shooting her and her struggles to get noticed, from an empty open mike night at a New Orleans club to a failed audition on “The Voice.”
Though the producers of the TV reality show failed to see a marketable talent in Montgomery, there was a successful multi-instrumentalist living on a kibbutz in Israel, who noticed her brassy tenor via her YouTube clips. Kutiman is known on YouTube for mashing up parts of other YouTubers’ video, be they practicing on instruments or demonstrating their talents solo, and constructing original songs out of the bits. Check out his channel here. Of all the videos Kutiman has, the clear leader in views is the one featuring Montgomery, and it was a track that took months to construct.
While he worked on it, Kutiman’s filmmaking friend, Haar, got to work uncovering who the people were that made up the song. But, to Haar, there was one person’s story who stood out the most: a 39-year-old black woman with braces who openly identifies as lesbian and calls herself Princess Shaw.
“The one that got me the most was Samantha,” says Haar grabbing his heart as he sits next to the singer in the dinning area of the Standard Hotel in Miami Beach. They were visiting to promote the film’s East Coast premiere at Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival.
Haar reached to the singer through Facebook, and he asked to meet with her, saying he would fly from Israel to New Orleans. She admits she had been approached in the past by people making big promises, so she took a friend with her, just in case. “She was suspicious,” notes Haar. “She didn’t know who is this guy coming from the end of the world, and we sat and talk, and we felt very comfortable with each other.”
“When I met him, I felt like we meshed, like I’d been knowin’ him for years,” says Montgomery. “I didn’t feel fear or ‘Oh, my God.’ It just felt natural.”
One of the first places she took him to was the open mike night. “From the first evening, I knew she was going to part of this film,” said Haar.
Originally, Haar thought he was creating a documentary of several other YouTube musicians, but he said he couldn’t help but focus on Montgomery. “I met other musicians, and I thought it was going to be a kind of tapestry of musicians who upload their material on YouTube, but there was something in contrast in the meetings with Samantha in New Orleans. I felt all the time that my heart wants to go to New Orleans.”
So he would shoot several days straight with her and go back to Israel to edit, and then return, going back and forth. Meanwhile, Kutiman worked on the track for nine months, from November of 2014 to September of 2015. It was only then that the track could be revealed.
Though most of the film’s reviews have been positive, it has received criticism for possibly exploiting Montgomery, as she struggles for recognition, even at some point, travelling to Atlanta for a shot of success at that city’s much more active open mike scene. Both Haar and Montgomery are keen to address these issues many film critics have brought up.
Montgomery says she understands why Haar kept the song secret until it was finished, catching her at an unguarded, giddy moment and then her tearful reaction as reality began to hit her — recognized at last. “Anything in this life that you do, there’s going to be some backlash,” she says. “They did it the way they thought they should do it because I probably would have had a different reaction. Not a bad one, but maybe I would have been more robotic on camera. I feel the way they did that was a beautiful thing to me because it was a wonderful surprise for me because I had no idea.”
“I can add two things” Haar offers. “I really felt I wanted to catch those moments as if there is no film about it. It’s as close as you can be to what would happen without the film. And besides that, it’s not like I felt that I’m hiding this secret, you know, because as I knew more and more, I felt more uncomfortable because we knew each other … I felt I wanted to tell her because we became more friends.”
“No malice,” adds Montgomery.
Ultimately, the film is about more than the song. It presents one intimate story on the need of human connection and recognition through this new medium. “It’s like this metaphor of all these people putting stuff out on YouTube,” Haar says of the film. “They are writing something, putting it in a bottle and throwing it to the ocean and hoping that someone will find a treasure on the other side, and I hope with this film, also, I really hope that these people will see the layers.”
Presenting Princess Shaw runs 83 minutes and is not rated (it contains some adult themes). It’s now available on demand, if you order it through Amazon, you support The Independent Ethos. There are a few screenings happening now in the U.S. For showtimes, visit this link. Images in this post were provided by Magnolia Pictures and the Miami International Film Festival.