Carine Bijlsma knew her Hail Mary wasn’t guaranteed to reach the Black Messiah, but she had to try.
In 2012, the Dutch filmmaker — whose prior documentary work focuses on classical musicians, including her own father, cellist Anner Bylsma — tracked down an email address for Kendra Foster, a vocalist who sang back-up in D’Angelo’s band, the Vanguard. She sent her a note detailing her hopes to helm a documentary about his life and music, though it was an unlikely proposition considering the intense privacy D’Angelo has cultivated over the last decade-plus.
D’Angelo, born Michael Archer, had recently re-emerged from a quiet, tumultuous period: he released his second album, Voodoo, in 2000, but a number of personal setbacks — including a car crash that ejected him from the vehicle and three stays in rehab to treat his addiction to drugs and alcohol — precipitated his withdrawal from the spotlight in the years that followed.
Foster relayed Bijlsma’s intentions to Archer, and she came back with good news.
“A month later, she wrote me back, saying, ‘D’Angelo really likes your perspective, and he feels like you get it. He’ll be in contact with you shortly,’” she told the audience at the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of Devil’s Pie: D’Angelo on April 27. “Of course, shortly in D’Angelo time…”
But he did call, and two years after that, Bijlsma found herself training her focus on Archer as he worked through a pack of Newports at the piano while rehearsing for his Second Coming tour in support of Black Messiah, the 2014 album that marked his triumphant return to both studio and stage. Devil’s Pie is a generous glimpse into the life of one of the world’s most elusive artists, and one that carefully toes the boundary Archer has drawn between D’Angelo and himself. Bijlsma’s sensitivity and consideration shape every choice: each conversation with Archer is balanced out by an interlude where Bijlsma gives him space, lagging behind him at a distance as he ambles through backstage labyrinths and carpeted hotel hallways. She treats him, and the goldmine of archival footage provided by members of his family, with reverence: her aim is not to shamelessly reveal or expose, but to explain, with respect for what he’s been through and his choice to refrain from commenting on those matters in detail. Watching Devil’s Pie, you’re always aware of the privilege Bijlsma was afforded and how seriously she took it.
“He was like, ‘This is your art. I want to see what you’re gonna make,’” she tells Billboard after the documentary’s premiere. Below, Bijlsma explains how she made Devil’s Pie: D’Angelo, and how she was able to compose a study of one of popular music’s most mysterious men on film.
You mentioned that you were a longtime fan of D’Angelo. When did he became one of your favorite artists?
I knew D’Angelo even from Brown Sugar — but I was still quite young when it came out. I didn’t really grasp how layered his music is until later. I had always loved his music. I had kind of forgotten about him for a couple of years, and then someone I was very close to discovered him for the first time, so he was playing a lot of his music. I was like, “What happened to him?” I got back into [his music] around 2010.
I’m curious as to how those first conversations went with D’Angelo. What was it like to work through the initial stages of this? What were you nervous about?
For some reason it was a very organic process, actually. He called me, and then it was just something we set out to do. It was just a waiting game to [decide] when it was the right time. Management had told me to start when the album came out — he reemerged in 2012, but the album didn’t come out until 2014. It was a lot of waiting. I would call him every three months or so to check in: “Do you still want it?” And he would say, yes. It was very organic and very familiar from the beginning.
What was the first scene you filmed together?
When I first met him, he was recording Black Messiah. I started [filming] the rehearsals right before the album came out. So I did a little bit in the fall of 2014, but we really, really started in January 2015.
This is a really intimate scenario that you’re walking into as a stranger. The studio is a sacred space, and visiting it, in this context, requires a ton of trust. How did you build trust with D’Angelo and navigate that experience?
I think the first thing to do is to be trustworthy, and to be truthful about who you are. Just to be completely open and completely honest.
I’m sure that came up when you were working on other aspects of the documentary. He’s a notoriously private person, and he’s been through a lot. What was it like to work with D’Angelo on some of the more personal aspects of Devil’s Pie?
The archival footage I got through his cousin, Lisa. I met his brother backstage and I asked D’Angelo if I could have their numbers for archival footage, and he said that was fine. When I was in Richmond, I had lunch with his brother and he introduced me to his cousin, Lisa. I went to her house and picked out archival footage for the film. She selected that, and she sent that out to D’Angelo, and he got to review everything first, because it’s so private. He okayed that first before she sent it to me to use in the film.
What was your reaction when you first reviewed that material? This is stuff no one has ever seen before.
Yeah, it was beautiful. There were two hours of it. I love amateur footage because it has something so pure about it. It’s so rare to see. It’s a world of course that no one can see, that only a few people were actually there for, so it’s very precious. I’m very grateful that we got to use it.
Were there any scenes of the personal footage that stood out to you?
All the footage of the church is beautiful. There’s a scene where Questlove and D’Angelo sit on the couch together — footage from the Voodoo period, which was shot by Steve Mandel, who’s the sound engineer for the Roots. I think it’s very beautiful to see them sitting there when they’re 25 years old… to have these two, they sit there and they’re about to embark on this huge journey that was the Voodoo tour. I think that’s a really beautiful moment in time.
Were there any lessons that you took from this that you hadn’t learned from prior projects? How did you approach Devil’s Pie differently from a directing standpoint?
I mostly shot this film by myself because it’s such a close group. I didn’t want to bring in extra people because I wanted the experience for D’Angelo and the Vanguard to be their experience, and not to interrupt that by bringing in a whole crew. This was actually the first time that I shot so much of the film myself. That was definitely a new experience. I very much enjoyed that.
How did this experience change your connection to D’Angelo’s music? Do you look at his music differently?
When I first went into the rehearsal space, I remember thinking that it felt like I was walking into the music — almost like in Mary Poppins, when they jump into the painting. I felt like everything you hear in his music, it’s actually a world that exists — either everything he’s listened to, he’s learned, he’s experienced, and also when these musicians come together, the atmosphere and the vibe that’s in the room is so magical. That was so beautiful to be a part of that. Now, when I put on his music, I hear that. I love his music and I could still go to a D’Angelo show any day because I think he’s an absolutely brilliant musician.
Why did you settle on Devil’s Pie for the film’s title? Did you talk about this with D’Angelo?
I think it’s a great title, and I think in the film itself, during that song, it’s a pivotal moment. The film is almost like a study of what he went through or who he is, and I think that he has… I think it’s an intriguing title. It’s always been the working title, even when I started several years ago. It felt natural.
I love the note we end on, those shots of him grooving alone in the studio with the tape rolling. We’re left with the wonderful news that he’s working on a new album. How did that decision come about?
D’Angelo is a musician, so he’s always making music. That’s what he does. It’s just a continuous process. Sometimes he’ll put out an album, but he’s always making music; it’s not like he’s doing other things. He’s always in and out of the studio doing that. It just felt natural. Of course, there’s going to be a follow-up, because that’s what he does.
When I put [the text that he was working on his fourth album] in, I didn’t realize that it was going to be news like that… but it’s true, he’s in good spirits and he’s in the studio, and he’s working hard on his music. It’s exciting. It’s going to be great.