Are ‘my shame’ music docs such as ‘Robbie Williams’ the final act of celebrity narcissism?

Analyse That: Robbie Williams poses on a couch in a promotional photo for his new Netflix docuseries (Netflix)
Analyse That: Robbie Williams poses on a couch in a promotional photo for his new Netflix docuseries (Netflix)

And now the end is near. And so I face the final curtain… But before I go, let me tell you what a right royal f*** up I truly was. Regrets? I’ve had a few. Where do you want me to start?

Welcome to the era of the “my shame” music documentary. In the week that Netflix releases the intimate tell-all Robbie Williams, with its rolling news feed of booze issues, emotional problems and colossal stardom, cinemas greet the similarly candid Peter Doherty: Stranger in My Own Skin. It’s directed by The Libertines star’s partner, Katia De Vidas, and tells the story of Doherty’s years of drug addiction in extreme close-up.

Both Netflix series and film have the advantage of heaps of footage gathered at the time these personal tempests were raging – 30,000 hours of it in Robbie Williams’s case. (Let’s pray there’s never a director’s cut.) Both show artists who continued to create even as they struggled from day to day, but their trajectories are different. Williams has had a staggering 14 UK number one albums; The Libertines had one. Substance abuse derailed the career of one but not the other. Williams, in his underpants, talks to the filmmaker Joe Pearlman from the bedroom of his LA mansion. De Vidas captures the auction of Doherty’s artworks and guitars to fund another stint in rehab in Thailand. It’s not quite rock bottom but it’s getting there.

Is this a whole new art form? The final act of celebrity narcissism – the “worst bits” reel – the ultimate “look at me” gesture of the pop star ego in the terminal stages of fame. It’s certainly tempting to view it that way.

The template for the rock documentary was set early with Don’t Look Back, DA Pennebaker’s 1967 film about Bob Dylan’s 1965 tour of the UK, a moment when great songs were just pouring out of him, and he was at his coolest, most arrogantly enigmatic. This behind-the-scenes glimpse of the otherness of the artist star was still in vogue by the time of Madonna: Truth or Dare. There’s the startling whoomph of just how extraordinary Dylan and Madonna were at the height of their fame, why they are such stuff that dreams are made on.

Then, for a long time, music docs became fastidiously curated, a public relations tool, in which the brand must be protected at all costs. Not wishing to attract hate mail, but Taylor Swift: Miss Americana is pretty anodyne, risk-free stuff that feels inescapably PR-controlled. Yet even as the publicity industry has tightened its hold, there has been a gradual drift towards portraits that offer something more real and relatable. Artists who’ll show you something different of themselves – not cool at all, but ugly.

Boy in the band: Peter Doherty as seen in the documentary ‘Stranger in My Own Skin' (PATHÉ LIVE)
Boy in the band: Peter Doherty as seen in the documentary ‘Stranger in My Own Skin' (PATHÉ LIVE)

Back in 2011, Paul Kelly’s wonderful Lawrence of Belgravia tracked the presiding genius of Eighties indie greats Felt, Lawrence Hayward – whose own heroin addiction left him homeless – as he continued to chase his fading dreams of the sort of stardom that fell into Doherty’s lap. “If I could just meet Kate Moss,” Lawrence says at one point, with tragic irony. “Someone like that is for me, I reckon.” Cameron Crowe’s interviews for David Crosby: Remember My Name (2019) captured the former member of The Byrds and Crosby, Stills and Nash dealing frankly with his own demons, including heroin. These latest entries, though, to borrow a phrase, hit a new low.

Doherty is seen strapping a tourniquet around his arm and cooking up. In one sequence, his paranoia is so close to the surface that he’s afraid to go to the cashpoint. There are visible sores on his arms. It’s painful and at times turgid viewing. There’s little to suggest what an incendiary band The Libertines were either (30 seconds of them messing up the song “Horror Show” in a rehearsal room in the film There Are No Innocent Bystanders does a better job of it).

Doherty could have been remembered as the most gifted lyricist of his time, but his tabloid image still dominates. It’s not an idle comparison to think of how The Kinks burst onto the music scene in 1964 with the garage band energy of “You Really Got Me”, then nearly imploded under the pressures of too-much-too-young excess and inter-band tensions but held it together to continue releasing classic songs into the early Seventies. The Libertines never got beyond those first two phases. Doherty went on to form Babyshambles, of course, and his first band reunited for a third album in 2015, more than a decade after their chart-topping second, but the impression remains that Stranger in My Own Skin captures a talent all but wrecked by drug addiction. (It doesn’t, however, venture anywhere near the most unforgivable episode of that period: the circumstances surrounding the death of Mark Blanco at a party in east London in 2006, which were explored in the Channel 4 documentary Pete Doherty, Who Killed My Son?)

Take that: Robbie Williams is at the centre of a new self-titled Netflix docuseries (Netflix)
Take that: Robbie Williams is at the centre of a new self-titled Netflix docuseries (Netflix)

Meanwhile, one revealing sequence in Robbie Williams shows how mental health difficulties used to be brushed under the carpet. Williams tells an interviewer in 1999 that he has “been in a black depression for the last five weeks” but is asked to do another take so he can provide a more positive answer. He does.

It’s certainly hard to turn your gaze away when a celebrity is falling to pieces on the screen in front of you. There’s a danger not only that they become exercises in voyeurism, but that needle sores, depression and intoxication become an essential part of the vocabulary of the music documentary. Will future publicists vet star vehicles with notes about the need to be “more grimy” in places?

Yet in a culture that has been suffocated by brand management of “personalities”, where all the messy complicatedness of real life is routinely blocked from view, these intimate pieces show that less varnished portraits may be unheroic, uncomfortable and unsightly, but they’re also a hell of a lot more interesting.

‘Robbie Williams’ is streaming now on Netflix. ‘Peter Doherty: Stranger in My Own Skin’ is out in cinemas