Avicii: True Stories: A tale of tragedy, excess, indifference, and home truths
Originally released in 2017, the documentary film ‘Avicii: True Stories’, charting the career and personal life of Swedish DJ and music producer Tim Bergling aka Avicii, reappeared just before Christmas 2018 after a few months off screens following his death.
For me its return to screens was timely.
In the months preceding the film becoming available again, I had been investing much of my time and energy into building a professional coaching practice focused on supporting the career journeys of people in the creative industries — particularly those in music, media, and entertainment.
Watching ‘True Stories’ this past weekend I have no doubt I absorbed it with a far deeper insight than I would have done before beginning my coaching venture.
As someone working as a talent agent in the music industry (and specifically electronic music) up until around the time Avicii announced his retirement, the film resonated strongly with me for two reasons in particular:
Firstly, I had made the acquaintance of, and in some cases worked directly with, a number of the people in his circle.
Secondly, this story exposed the gaps in my own awareness and empathy for those I had worked with during my time in music.
Looking back, there were a few occasions where I should have noticed people were struggling.
One client of mine had a particularly difficult time on tour in the summer of 2013. While I was one layer removed (the artist’s manager was their primary go-to contact), I didn’t deal well enough with the issues at hand. It wasn’t I pushed them to keep going, or ignored there was a problem. It was that I took very little action to really understand what was going on.
Aside from canceling a couple of gigs, my main commitment was to apathy: imagining and, frankly, hoping, it would just blow over. I remember even thinking a couple of times what a hassle the whole episode was. Today I look back on those thoughts with a feeling of shame.
I certainly lacked the formal education and training to know how best to handle that situation and others like it. That’s not unreasonable — being trained as a counselor wasn’t part of my job description, nor was it expected.
But I could have been more in touch with those other people’s emotions and understanding what was going on for them.
To do that certainly should be within the remit of someone who has consciously committed to helping guide another person’s career and livelihood. More than that, it should be in the remit of being a human.
If we want to better develop these connections with others, we should first strive to better connect with and understand ourselves.
Self-management was something I was poor at back then. It’s an ongoing process I’m still working on today, but taking some time to examine who I really am (and sitting with the discomfort that can sometimes bring) has undoubtedly helped me recognize the strengths, struggles, needs, and values in others.
With all that being said, watching ‘True Stories’ was still harder than I expected.
While the final film is accomplished, one has to ask if Avicii even wanted any of this to happen in the first place. He was undoubtedly an introvert — coming alive most in the studio, either working alone or with just one or two other like minds, with the orchestra playing inside his head for hours on end.
Then there are the cameras. Until we have one pointing right at us, many of us underestimate the uneasy feelings cameras can induce. With this being a 90 minute+ film there must have been hours and hours of cameras up close and personal in all aspects of Avicii’s life — both on and off stage. That’s got to be hard for anyone, especially an introvert who was clearly suffering from both physical and mental afflictions.
However, in what is undoubtedly a sad and tragic story, there are a few touching moments: the pure joy of a song hook coming together exactly as he wanted it; hanging out at home with Liam the puppy; Chris Martin sharing a tale of being brought back to the very start of his Coldplay career as he forgot how to tune his guitar one night.
The turning point, or rather the glimpse of something precious missed, is perhaps when Avicii discovers the writings of Carl Jung. It’s often hard to really get to know ourselves, especially in our early twenties. As he explains his insights from reading Jung you can sense the pieces falling into place and a genuine connection being made with something truly profound about himself, while so many others continue to treat him as a commodity, an asset to be sweated.
I was struck that the film didn’t focus much on teasing out the grueling travel, the continuous noise, the late nights, the early mornings, the stops and starts. Perhaps it’s implicit; the pain of the protagonist’s plight being enough as it is without stripping back the raw, visceral layers even further.
While studio sessions seemed to bring out Avicii’s natural creativity and perhaps provide much-needed comfort, there’s a constant cash cow, or rather an insatiable beast, that’s always lurking, demanding, dominating.
He played over 700 shows in a rollercoaster 6 years. There are artists out there who play more, but very few at such a young age and with those extreme degrees of growth, pressure, and instability. Towards the last leg of his touring run the pain is all too clear to see, but still he is pushed relentlessly onward.
Ignoring for a moment the slavering of those rapacious commercial maws, throughout the course of the film’s 97 minutes there are plenty of examples of blunt ignorance, unheeded blindspots, and well-intentioned but misguided advice. Even the brief final card on screen that tells of Avicii’s passing feels evasive, ill-judged, a second thought. The show must go on, the show must come first.
In the end, it’s a tragic tale of excess, exploitation, naivety, isolation, and perhaps just a simple lack of empathy and understanding for a fellow human being.
What we should all recognize is — unsettling as it can be — much of this is easily and often unwittingly done.
The good news is it doesn’t need to be this way.
We’re all capable of improving our understanding of others; of being able to truly see and hear them.
One way we can start to do this is by better understanding ourselves; no matter who we are, where we’ve been, or what we may believe we’ve become.
Perhaps Carl Jung said it best:
“Until we make the unconscious conscious, we will be dictated by it and call it fate.”
Thank you to Murray Gray and Gabriel Gray for reading drafts of this article.
Originally published at www.howardgray.net on January 29, 2019.