Samantha Montgomery, the subject of the documentary Presenting Princess Shaw, is the sort of person you could pass on the street and barely notice. Aside from her braces and flaming red hair, she fits the description of many ordinary women. But when she assumes the persona of Princess Shaw and sings her original songs on YouTube, suddenly she’s proclaiming from a mountaintop with the voice of a nurturing, love-smitten angel.
While being profiled by the camera of filmmaker Ido Haar, the Princess goes about her day-job duties at a New Orleans senior care facility, changing sheets and sweet-talking the old folks with infectious good humor. Her evening routines are pretty uneventful — updating her YouTube page (“You Look Like My Dreams”) with new songs and personal testimony, and going out to a series of embarrassing open-mic nights in clubs, often singing to an empty house.
Meanwhile, however, someone far away has taken notice of her. Ophir Kutiel, aka Kutiman, an Israeli video artist/musician whose collage-of-vids installations have graced New York’s Guggenheim Museum, becomes entranced with her YouTube offerings. Unbeknownst to her, Kutiman digitally reaches to a network of instrumentalists eager to fill in the blanks in the Princess’ songs. With their help, he gives her bluesy chant “Give It Up” a sparkling new professional-style arrangement, and puts it out there without notifying her. It goes viral, and one day while moping around Atlanta she realizes she’s some kind of star. Her lonely midnight confessionals have been turned into fully orchestrated productions of power and grace. She’s now officially talented.
There are a few different ways to look at Princess Shaw’s transformation. The cynical way would be to say: There goes another arguably praise-worthy entertainer anointed by the YouTube/The Voice (successor to American Idol) conveyor-belt machinery. That’s sweet, but she’ll be forgotten in a week. Kutiman, who lives in a modest house on a kibbutz, has made a career out of creating “visual symphonies” using unknown performers like Princess Shaw. Without his expertise and connections, she would have remained obscure and this film would never have been made. Indeed, Kutiman takes credit as “creator” on several of her published songs. (Evidently, the Princess now has management and is touring her act nationally.)
But in the last scenes, the documentary drains the schpritz out of the “star is born” fairy tale. It shows the Princess, after her triumphant trip to Tel Aviv, walking down the same New Orleans streets in her hospital scrubs, back to a life of swabbing floors. That takes guts. We can’t get Princess Shaw’s voice and tunes out of our heads, but it’s the sadness that hooks us. She’s a princess in pain, and Presenting Princess Shaw puts that pain on a throne.