Australian alt-rock singer/songwriter Courtney Barnett is the focus of Anonymous Club, fellow Aussie filmmaker Danny Cohen’s debut documentary feature. Capturing the artist’s daily experiences (and existential struggles) during the world tour for her 2018 album Tell Me How You Really Feel, the film is best when it focuses on Barnett’s innate musical charm. While Cohen and his subject have collaborated creatively in the past—mostly on music videos—the director keeps his subject at arm’s length, afraid (or simply not equipped) to demystify the musician for a wider audience. Despite gaining intimate access to Barnett, particularly due to Cohen’s one-man shoot, an impenetrable mask remains—a manifestation of the director and subject’s dual aversion to sincere vulnerability. Anonymous Club feels like a prolonged case of sympathetic stage fright.
Filmed by Cohen on lush 16mm, Anonymous Club (named after a song on Barnett’s 2013 EP A Sea of Split Peas) utilizes a clever conceit to get the notoriously shy and cagey Barnett to articulate her thoughts without the comfort of a backing band. She uses a dictaphone as an impromptu diary, spouting her everyday thoughts during a particularly tumultuous time in her life and career. Met with overwhelming critical fanfare in the wake of her second studio album, Barnett becomes overcome with anxiety and self-doubt, unsure of how to navigate what (to her) seems like overblown praise. While these audio diary entries are certainly revealing, Barnett herself recognizes that her songwriting process evokes a candid honesty that she’s frankly unable to disclose through conversation. Particularly because these diary entries are recorded as soliloquies for Cohen’s film, there’s a palpable sense that Barnett is flinching away from her true sentiments, adding a layer of irony to the fact that she’s promoting Tell Me How You Really Feel. Of course, Barnett is more than aware of this paradox.
During the opening scene, a fan approaches Barnett and asks if she can scribble his favorite lyrics of hers on the shirt off his own back: “I’d rather stay in bed with the rain over my head / Than have to pick my brain up off of the floor.”
“These are the lyrics of my life,” the fan beams.
Barnett, completely incapable of occupying the spotlight off-stage, says she hardly remembers the words. What’s more likely, though, is that acknowledging her music’s impact on someone else’s life is far too heavy for her bear.
These are the moments that crystalize Barnett’s interiority; for all of her success, she’s still deeply unsure and insecure. However, this is hardly the revelation the film thinks it is. Any casual fan of Barnett’s knows that her lyrics don’t shy away from addressing her chronically low self-esteem. Tell Me How You Really Feel is rife with these very musings, from the title of the track “Crippling Self Doubt and a General Lack of Confidence” to the lyrics of “Hopefulessness”: “Hardly a maverick / Lesser than average.”
Undoubtedly the most intriguing revelation in Anonymous Club is the deep-seated anger that Barnett was feeling during the tour, imbuing her performances with a gnarly edge that ended up draining the artist completely. A particularly powerful segment involves the singer growling her way through “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch,” giving heightened intensity to what appears as a relatively curt, cheeky song on the studio recording.
Easily the most riveting scene in the film, the singer’s grunge-twinged rendition is cathartic and chilling. Later, however, it’s revealed that the singer’s continued screaming during her live performances has led to her almost completely losing her voice. It’s an interesting dilemma: What happens when finally letting go of pent-up emotions turns out to be more trouble than it’s worth? Rather than examine these queries—or probe deeper into Barnett’s interiority through proper interviews—Cohen is perfectly content with diluting and distorting an ostensible salve for the artist’s woes.
Barnett’s six-year relationship with musician and frequent collaborator Jen Cloher came to an end in 2018, making Tell Me How You Really Feel a veritable break-up album. She comments frequently about being lonely on tour (and in life) in the film, but this vacuous feeling surely stems from something deeper than relationship issues. In fact, companionship has been as much of a stressor for Barnett as it has been a balm: “Tell me when you’re getting bored and I’ll leave / I’m not the one who put the chain around your feet / I’m sorry for all of my insecurities, but it’s just part of me,” she sings on “Debbie Downer” from Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. Certain songs on the album even reference Cloher by name, and it’s not a far leap to say that this song was inspired by the singer’s girlfriend problems.
However, the tidy bow on Anonymous Club is that Barnett’s spirits are immediately lifted when she begins seeing someone new. This ending is made all the more sour by Barnett’s consistent lyrical confessions about her struggles with depression—even in the face of fame, critical acclaim and relatively secure relationships. It’s a false sense of hopefulness (or rather hopefulessness) to end on, leaving an acrid taste on the viewer’s tongue. However, this easygoing optimism is also the perfect marketing ploy for Barnett’s recent release, Things Take Time, Take Time, a much more upbeat album compared to her 2018 effort.
Though Cohen has made a formidable name for himself in the visual aesthetics of rock ‘n’ roll, his feature debut is unfocused and emotionally flimsy, no doubt a product of Cohen’s first-film inhibitions. While Barnett’s lyrical prowess is always impressive to behold, Anonymous Club would have fared better as a straight-up concert film as opposed to a superficial peek into the artist’s persona and career on the precipice of stardom. The film fails to depict an intimate image of the much-beloved indie darling, barely even attempting to unravel why Barnett’s melancholy musings are so damn relatable in the first place. Through deadpan delivery and incisive self-reflection, she infuses the mundane with an air of witty gloom. However, what really keeps people hanging on Barnett’s every last word are the moments when she’s most comforting: “Your vulnerability is stronger than it seems / Y’know it’s okay to have a bad day.” If only Cohen had the experience and tenacity to get the singer to take her own advice.
Director: Danny Cohen
Release Date: July 15, 2022 (Oscilloscope Pictures)
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Filmmaker Magazine, Paste Magazine and Blood Knife Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan