While the Courtney Barnett documentary Anonymous Club follows the Melbourne singer-songwriter from 2018 to 2021, it takes its title from a track on her 2013 debut double EP. ‘Anonymous Club’ is a ballad imagining a quiet, phone-free dinner with friends at Barnett’s house, where anyone who comes can, for a night, leave their troubles at the door.
- READ MORE: Courtney Barnett: “I was trying to retrain my brain to not get hung up on certain things and to see the beauty in those moments”
But there’s no peaceful domestic scene of the sort in this documentary, which captures the artist during a crisis of confidence throughout a winding world tour with endless press obligations.
Anonymous Club, directed by Barnett’s long-time visual collaborator Danny Cohen, begins by focusing on her frustrations with a contradiction: While her lyrics and wordplay are beloved by fans and critics, she self-admittedly “sucks at interviews”, her shyness and anxiety leading to short, vague answers. This discomfort escalates into severe self-doubt over her abilities and purpose as an artist, and the film follows Barnett during this creative block.
We meet her mid-tour off the back of sophomore album ‘Tell Me How You Really Feel’, which matches Barnett’s knack for capturing the quotidian with a searing anger and frustration at sexism and violence against women. Take the song ‘Nameless, Faceless’, which became something of a political anthem in Australia upon release, as screamed lyrics like “I wanna walk through the park in the dark” channelled a collective anger at the 2018 murder of Eurydice Dixon in a Melbourne park.
But the Barnett of Anonymous Club feels unable to be the activist she wishes she was – or to even articulate herself properly, despite the honest, vivid “audio diaries” that serve as narration. There’s an intimate quality to these ‘diaries’, which Cohen asks her to record on tour (smartly freeing the doco from talking heads).
Over time, Barnett’s creeping self-doubt and exhaustion at “pretending” to be a rock star on stage takes over. More and more deep sighs punctuate her entries, familiar to anyone who tries to fight off depression but can still feel it seep through their body.
Despite this, Anonymous Club continually proves Barnett wrong with its (many) electrifying live performances but also the quieter moments backstage where she’s just hanging out with her crew and Cohen. While he never appears on camera, we occasionally hear the director joking with Barnett about her irrational fears that everyone in the crowd will hate her, helping her break free of her own anxieties to dance around backstage.
There’s an intimacy to Anonymous Club only possible because of Barnett and Cohen’s friendship, allowing him to capture her light and charm even in periods of withdrawal. A sense of care and consideration guides the film, which manages to look beautiful even when we’re on a cramped tour bus or in less-than-glamorous backstage rooms.
Rich blue tones colour the film’s backdrops, evoking the paint blotches on the cover of ‘Things Take Time, Take Time’, Barnett’s third full-length album, released last year. It’s always in the background, which is why it’s no surprise we ultimately see Barnett pause post-tour to recollect herself and her love of music, leading into the warm, relaxed record.
As a meditation on depression, anxiety and touring, Anonymous Club isn’t just valuable viewing for Barnett’s die-hard fans, though they will no doubt cherish this film which captures the artist at her most open, outside of her music. For the first time, we’re invited into the club.
- Director: Danny Cohen
- Starring: Courtney Barnett
- Release date: March 17 (Australia), premiering this week at SXSW