In this era of constant social media stimulation it’s difficult to explain the mystery that surrounded American neo-soul god D’Angelo’s retreat from the public eye. No statements, no Instagram posts, no snippets of new ideas shared to his followers – just an absence, this all-pervading sense of loss.
But then that changed. A series of inspiring, soaring tour dates in 2012 saw D’Angelo open out a fresh chapter, before 2014’s mighty ‘Black Messiah’ found the iconic artist exceed his legacy, carving a new era of soulful disruption.
Carine Bijlsma had a ring-side seat. The Dutch documentary maker was able to enter his inner circle, following him on tour. As revealing an insight into the fog that still surrounds D’Angelo as we’re ever likely to see, her documentary Devil’s Pie makes its UK debut tonight – August 15th – in London as part of a Boiler Room event.
“I think D’Angelo is one of the greatest musicians of our time,” she tells Clash. “And he’s a very mysterious, enigmatic person. People don’t really know who he is. There’s a big mystery around him, which he left the music scene for so long. I think there’s a lot of questions, and there’s a lot of fascination. And he’s a beautiful person. He’s a great subject, just as a person to follow.”
A huge fan from the outset, Carine sent a few emails to those around the singer, attempting to pin him down. Eventually one luckily fell through some cracks, and prompted a response from D’Angelo himself.
“What’s so beautiful about him is that he’s a very pure person,” she insists. “And he’s not fake. And I think that’s why it’s so hard to get to him, but then when you meet him… he’s real. That’s why he’s such a beautiful character in the first place.”
Taking her camera on the road, the film maker started work in 2012, hoping to catch something – anything – of use. Quickly becoming a key part of D’Angelo’s set up, her position enabled her to craft something unique, something utterly gripping.
“I couldn’t believe I was witnessing it from so close,” she gasps. “I was on the tour with them for two years, just on the tour bus and everything, so just to be a part of that group, and to be close to these genius musicians, witnessing music history… it was just amazing.”
Carine adds: “I think what meant most to me is to be taken into this group, and to be taken into the family like that. That was very special for me.”
During our conversation there is this clear bond between Carine and the musicians she documented – each one is at the top of their game, with D’Angelo’s live shows pushing them ever further into uncharted spaces. “Everyone had their own instrument, and mine was the camera. I was always there, and they knew me so well, that it didn’t really matter – it was really a fly on the wall situation.”
“I think when you shoot a great scene,” Carine insists, “you know it’s a great scene.”
Devil’s Pie is littered with great scenes. It’s free-flowing structure affords space for a narrative to unfold, and thankfully it’s a great one – D’Angelo’s return is one of the great comebacks of our time, with ‘Black Messiah’ raising his artistry once more to supreme levels.
“I think the film gives you a lot more insight on who he is and why things went the way they went,” explains the film maker. “And I think D’Angelo – knowing him so closely – is still mysterious. It’s who he is. So you get to know him very well, but at the same time you also know there are these things you won’t know. I like that. I like that mystery in a main character. It’s good to always want more.”
But it’s not just D’Angelo. Each person in that ensemble is given a moment to shine, with Carine ensuring that the breadth of talent on display is recognised. It makes for a more intriguing documentary, for sure, with Carine accepted as a key aspect of that team.
“There’s so much passion for the music and so much love for the music… It’s really their life,” she says. “I mean, I think music is the highest artform, so I definitely agree with them. They’re all on top of the game, they’re all extremely talented, and they’re all beautiful people. They work hard. All of them.”
One potent guest star is Questlove – the percussionist goes back a long way with D’Angelo, and whenever he can he will make time to catch up with the singer, and catch one of his inspirational live shows.
“Questlove is definitely one of D’Angelo’s biggest fans, and also a very important collaborator,” she points out. “On the ‘Voodoo’ record he was the co-pilot. We all know that D’Angelo is an amazing musician, but I think if you yourself are an amazing musician you can see more of how brilliant he is. There’ll be little things. Talking to Questlove, he has so much admiration for D’Angelo’s artistry and musicality.”
Airing at Tribeca and showing at other key festivals, Devil’s Pie is a true labour of love. A wonderful achievement both in the technical and emotional sense, it’s taken up almost every aspect of Carine’s life. Flying in to London for the UK premiere, she’ll be discussing the process afterwards, and also the impact her work has had on D’Angelo – he actually used two of her tour photographs for the ‘Black Messiah’ inner booklet.
“It’s a really, really big honour,” she insists. “I took it the day that I handed out the letters, so I really took it as a fan being in the audience. Then by the time I got to rehearsal, the band urged me to show it to D’Angelo – I showed it to him, and then later he called me, and he was like: I would love to use your photographs for my album. So it’s an incredible honour.”
Working on achieving fuller distribution for the film, Carine Bijlsma is elated to be able to share it. Being able to watch and interact with those audiences has been a real thrill, but it’s also cemented and emboldened her love and appreciation of D’Angelo’s artistry
. “It’s real. And it’s honest. And it’s timeless,” she says. “It’s so layered, that you can endlessly discover new things in it. His timing is second to none – no one can really compare. He’s an endless study object – even if it takes long there’s enough as a musician to learn from, and take on that vision. He’s inspired so many musicians. He’s really a musician’s hero.”
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Devil's Pie will show at the Southbank Centre, London tonight (August 15th).
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