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A revealing portrait of Mary J. Blige

Director Vanessa Roth brings recording artist’s essence and spirit to screen

Colette Greenstein
Colette Greenstein has been a contributing arts & entertainment writer for the Banner since 2009. VIEW BIO
A revealing portrait of Mary J. Blige
Mary J. Blige, from the documentary “Mary J. Blige’s My Life.” PHOTO: COURTESY OF AMAZON STUDIOS

In November of 1994, Mary J. Blige released her second album, “My Life” — a collection of deeply intimate and personal songs that revealed her battles with alcohol and drug addiction, depression and an abusive relationship.

What resulted was not only awards and acclaim, but a profound and enduring connection forged with millions of fans around the world. That connection is captured in the Amazon Original documentary, “Mary J. Blige’s My Life,” directed by Vanessa Roth and currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

The Oscar-winning director says Blige, who executive-produced the documentary, wanted it to focus on the “My Life” album, released “at a time when she had become this huge celebrity but at the same time wasn’t feeling good.” Speaking in a Zoom press junket for the film, Roth adds, “She was really going through the darkest time of her life, and then wrote the album to free herself from the pain and trauma that she was going through — and in doing that freed so many other people who heard what she was writing and said, ‘Me too, Mary, me too.’”

Mary J. Blige, from the documentary “Mary J. Blige’s My Life.” PHOTO: COURTESY OF AMAZON STUDIOS

The documentary weaves in multiple interviews with the Academy Award-nominated singer and actress discussing that tumultuous period in her life, as well as concert footage from 2019’s Royalty Tour, in which she performed “My Life” for the first time live, in celebration of its 25th anniversary. The film also includes listening sessions with some of Blige’s fans talking about the impact of the album, her songs and music in their lives.

Roth uses animation, to great effect, to show Blige as a young girl aspiring to something greater. Blige shares that when she first heard the Roy Ayers song, “Everybody Loves the Sunshine,” as a young girl, “There was something in that record that cracked open everything in me.”

Roth says her team, along with Blige’s team and Amazon’s team, “really wanted something that was more textured, and a little different, and a little more even playful, but also emotional, that animation could give.” She adds, “I didn’t want to do re-enactments. I really wanted to keep this film in Mary’s voice, in her spirit and her essence. The film to me is so much about that little girl.”

Roth’s body of work includes nonfiction films that often center on women, youth and girls. Her 2008 Academy Award win was for the short documentary, “Freeheld,” about New Jersey police detective Laurel Hester and her domestic partner, car mechanic Stacie Andree, and their fight to share pension benefits once Hester became terminally ill with cancer.

The filmmaker also has won an Emmy Honors Award for Social Impact and an International Documentary Association nomination for Best Documentary Series for “Daughters of Destiny: The Journey of Shanti Bhavan,” a four-part Netflix documentary series that premiered in 2017. The miniseries follows five girls growing up at the co-residential Shanti Bhavan school in India, which provides free education for some of the country’s most impoverished and underrepresented children.

“I tend to tell stories of people that are marginalized or ignored or often invisible and don’t get the spotlight to use their voice or take up space and show all the power that they have,” Roth explains.

Another recent project for Roth is directing and producing the six-part documentary series “National Geographic Presents: Impact with Gal Gadot,” with Gadot introducing each episode, that follows six extraordinary “wonder women” who are making a powerful impact on their communities around the world. 

In reflecting upon her work on “Mary J. Blige’s My Life,” Roth says she is grateful for the film, because “It’s a message of celebration, it’s a message of empowerment. It’s a message of feeling good and honoring the feeling bad parts, too.”

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