Music

The ‘Look At Me: XXXTentacion’ Documentary Still Can’t See The Full Picture

The existence of the Hulu documentary Look At Me: XXXTentacion is sort of perplexing. XXXTentacion was an artist who was almost excessively documented. Blogs, magazines, and newspapers covered what seemed to be his every move — starting with the move that kickstarted his infamy. Oddly enough, with all that documentation, it seems the enormity and repugnance of that initial move were never truly reckoned with, despite the Florida-born artist emerging at the height of an era in which nearly everyone can obsessively and thoroughly document their own lives, in real-time for audiences of thousands (the film seems pretty disinterested in doing so, as well).

Against those circumstances, the new documentary raises more questions than it answers, and the one hovering over all of them is: Who is this for? Produced by XXXTentacion’s manager, his mother, and the co-founder of The Fader magazine, the two-hour production functions at first as a biography. There are interviews with pivotal figures in X’s early career such as his former manager and friends like Ski Mask The Slump God. However, early problematic behavior like beating up another young man for a live stream on Periscope is characterized as simply marketing tactics or the reckless behavior of an exuberant personality. That’s the first sign of which way this documentary seems to be heading.

The tension increases upon the introduction of Geneva Ayala, the young woman who dated X shortly after some of his initial success — and who he nearly beat to death in horrific instances of alleged domestic abuse that were again recounted in lurid detail in court documents that surfaced in the years-long case that was never resolved. Ayala describes herself as “lost” as she continued her troubling, controlling relationship with XXXTentacion. It takes nearly an hour for the film to finally address the elephant in the room, and then strategically placed title cards seem to cast doubt on Ayala’s assertion that she was pregnant when X attacked her. She also admits to infidelity, which you can’t tell me isn’t another strategic move to undermine Ayala as a victim.

This is where XXXTentacion’s story highlights the grotesque of the entertainment industry. As X languishes in jail but receives heightened attention as a result of the gruesome charges against him, labels come calling, looking to capitalize on the publicity — no matter what it implies about their prospective partner. And while scenes recounting his record deal negotiations rightly reflect X’s business acumen at such a young age, they also — perhaps unintentionally — indict those who looked at him as a cash cow rather than a troubled young man who needed a different kind of help.

The movie reverts back to an examination of his album recording process for 17 and the album’s resulting success. Throughout the course of this act of the documentary, recordings are dredged up to reflect XXXTentacion’s fractured mind state — his paranoia, depression, and anxiety. It’s almost like the film is begging for sympathy for him, as if his talent and his mental illness could justify or excuse his behavior. While the filmmakers never shy away from the things he did or deny them, it’s hard to shake the sense that the producers — the people closest to him, who benefitted from his career the most, even as they likely had the most responsibility to get him into counseling or encourage him to restore his victims — are bargaining for absolution for themselves.

That sense comes through strongest in a round table scene toward the tail end of the film in which X’s aunt laments that X’s abuse hung over his head and defined him as much as his music. “How do you fully redeem yourself if every time, on every corner, it just keeps popping up?” his mom wonders. An off-screen interviewer counters, “How do you redeem yourself without ever admitting that you did something wrong?” The answers are as vague as X’s own responses on the issue; a focus on judgment, on his sense of personal accountability, the potential of his lost life. X’s mom offers her belief that he would have changed if he’d only gotten the chance — but would he? And what does it say about his fame that so many were so willing to excuse him if he didn’t?

That’s the true tragedy of a life cut as short as XXXTentacion’s was: We’ll never know. Yes, with more time, he could have turned his life around, perhaps in prison, perhaps on probation, perhaps years or even decades later after much therapy and self-reflection. But the flip side of that, the one this movie and X’s fans and the whole entertainment apparatus that benefitted from covering his blowups, his meltdowns, his triumphs, his failures, and yes, even his untimely demise can’t seem to acknowledge is that he could have stayed the same. He could have gotten worse. That’s the “complex” part of having a “complex legacy.” Look At Me, which seems to be as much for Jahseh’s closest associates to salve their guilty consciences as anything else, never really wants to look at that.

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