“I overthink what I need to say, and then I don’t say anything. Maybe it’s more useful just to talk.”
So says Australian musician Courtney Barnett in the revealing new documentary Anonymous Club, a film so intensely personal it almost borders on claustrophobic, as we enter the anxious mind of one of Australia’s most loved contemporary rock musicians.
Directed by longtime friend and Melbourne film-maker Danny Cohen, and shot beautifully on 16mm film, Anonymous Club feels like a series of Polaroids: captured moments, sometimes fleeting, with some details a little blurry. Following Barnett over a three-year period of touring, recording and working on her recent album, Things Take Time, Take Time, it’s narrated by the musician in voice notes she recorded herself.
As the famously shy artist reveals her fears, the short audio clips are juxtaposed with footage of her accepting major music awards and playing to huge crowds around the world. That jarring dissonance lies at the heart of this film: how can a notoriously private person exist in such an incredibly public career? What impact does that have on mental health, self-perception and the creative process? There is a sense of loneliness, too; when we don’t see her working, Barnett is often shown on her own.
Cohen recorded almost 30 hours of footage, and then cut it to a slender 83 minutes. It’s a pleasure to follow along on tour, visiting landscapes from around the world and more familiar places, too, including Melbourne’s Corner hotel. But the film is just as much about what is not shown.
One particularly arresting moment follows a confession about feeling unable to write – “My heart is empty, my head is empty, the page is empty,” Barnett says. For a minute or so, there is nothing on screen at all, just blackness. The viewer looks into the void, soundtracked by a raw, impassioned acoustic performance: Barnett’s pain is audible in her trademark yowl as she sings, “I don’t wanna be here.”
Anonymous Club can feel like listening in on someone’s therapy sessions. Barnett is frank about her headspace, and it’s clear she’s not comfortable recording her thoughts. Considering the confessional nature of much of her music (“I’m having trouble breathing in,” she sings on the chorus of her panic attack anthem Avant Gardener) or the outright fury of a song like I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch, it may seem a little surprising that Barnett is so reticent about her personal life.
But the documentary touches on imposter syndrome, and the inherent strangeness of performing as a job. “It feels like I’m being part of this scripted performance of what we think we’re supposed to see on stage, and it just feels really pointless,” Barnett says at one point. At another, she cries on stage.
Because the film is so internal, focused more on feelings and concepts than action, it does sometimes feel a little repetitive. But that, too, is an accurate representation of the experience of anxiety – the same things over and over and over, an inner monologue on repeat.
The musician’s relationship with her art is in flux throughout, and she admits that her understanding of her own songs changes as she does. But despite the anxiety that permeates Anonymous Club, it ends ultimately on a hopeful note, as Barnett realises her purpose as an artist, as a person.
“My albums won’t be with me on my deathbed holding my hand,” she says near the close of the documentary. “This film will not be with us as we lie dying – but I’d like to think in the bigger scheme of things, it will live on and help other people, or inspire other people, or create some sort of conversation.”