Samantha Princess Shaw travels from New Orleans to Tel Aviv in Presenting Princess Shaw, writer-director Ido Haar’s warm-hearted documentary about a 38-year-old caregiver who moonlights as an aspiring singer. The catch is that she does so on YouTube, posting a cappella videos of her original songs alongside confessionals that explain her past hardships and dreams of making it big. Shaw’s videos, with less than 100 views each, would likely not be notable as material for a feature documentary were it not for Kutiman, an Israeli musician and remix artist who singles out Shaw’s vocal for several compilation tracks of existing solo musical performances posted on YouTube. Taking a drum beat here and a trombone blare there, Kutiman composes music solely through the extant efforts of amateurs.
The premise presents logistical problems for the doc’s chronology, as Haar crosscuts between Shaw toiling away both at work and on YouTube in New Orleans and Kutiman sitting in his Tel Aviv apartment, watching Shaw’s performances in preparation to compose his work. Of course, at these points, the subjects apparently don’t know one another and Haar works to preserve the effect that events are being candidly shot and not recreated after the fact. A critical question arises through these points regarding precisely when Haar began filming Shaw, whose life is initially presented in what would have to be several months before Kutiman’s compositions go viral. As seen at her job, at a local open-mic night, and conversing with family members about her upcoming efforts to audition for The Voice, it’s difficult not to feel Haar turning the screws on Shaw’s desires, squeezing the life out of her with the knowledge that Kutiman’s work awaits in the wings.
That sense of tampering pollutes even Presenting Princess Shaw’s most affecting scenes, as when Shaw, who’s traveled to Atlanta to scope out the music scene and meet some relatives, reveals chronic sexual abuse by her mother’s boyfriend when she was a child. As shot and edited, the scene involves Shaw and two female relatives, each of whom comfort one another and shed tears of pain over the past trauma and tears of joy over present perseverance. The exchange clearly provides a space of catharsis for these women and Haar presents the exchange without overtly milking their pain for pathos. However, Haar’s presence lingers as a question the film never addresses, which is especially imperative since this moment precedes the public release of Kutiman’s work. Why was Haar there in the first place? Did he have prior knowledge of Kutiman’s work before its release? Are he and Kutiman friends? At what point did the project take shape as an idea for a documentary? While such questions don’t normally require answering within a film’s diegesis, the peculiar circumstances of Presenting Princess Shaw necessitate more transparency than the filmmaker is willing to offer.
The doc’s final third confirms the film’s intentions as an underdog narrative, as Kutiman’s videos draw the attention of the New York Times and other national outlets, creating the space and demand for a handful of concerts. Accordingly, Shaw hops a flight to Tel Aviv, where she prepares with Kutiman and other band members to prep for the show. Yet Haar’s filmmaking lacks essential narrative information, particularly the economic specifics of what Shaw’s sudden (and relative) fame entails. Specifically, it’s not clear how much she’s being paid for her work, or even if at all. These are essential questions given how the first third of the film harps on Shaw’s poverty and inability to keep the lights on in her cramped apartment. For all its adamancy that persistence pays, Presenting Princess Shaw is unwilling to thoroughly address the realities of its titular character’s circumstances.