When Mary J. Blige was 23, she released her incredibly vulnerable magnum opus My Life. But the pain she carried in her voice wasn’t just her own.
A 6-year-old Blige living in the Schlobohm housing projects of Yonkers with her sister and mother was very attuned to hearing and seeing women in the neighborhood being physically and verbally abused by men, sometimes even her own mother. The kind of music Blige, 50, creates is meant to comfort and uplift those very women, which is highlighted in her new documentary My Life, which exclusively premiered Friday (June 25) on Amazon Prime Video.
The film gives fans an intimate behind-the-scenes look into the recording process and resounding impact of her confessional album My Life, which Blige released Nov. 29, 1994, via Uptown Records. The Queen of Hip-Hop Soul bared her soul on a 17-track project about her depression, struggles with drugs and alcohol, and abusive relationship, and she streamlined her self-love journey for others to follow. My Life remained at No. 1 on Billboard‘s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart for eight weeks and reached the top 10 of the Billboard 200, won the 1995 Billboard Music Award for top R&B album, and received a 1996 Grammy nomination for best R&B album. It’s heralded as one of her best albums, but it speaks to the worst times of Blige’s life.
“It is a lot of pain in it, but it’s pain now that’s translated into joy,” the nine-time Grammy winner and Oscar nominee tells Billboard in an interview over Zoom. “We’re living to tell this story. There’s a time that I didn’t want to live. I hated myself. I didn’t think anything of myself. But the beauty is that I lived to tell the story, and now I don’t hate myself. I’ve developed some love for myself. And it’s helped so many people, and they’re living to tell the story.”
While helming the doc, Oscar-winning director Vanessa Roth (Freeheld) threaded together archival footage, never-before-seen photography, performance clips from the Hollywood Bowl, where Blige performed the entire album live for the first time to mark its 25th anniversary during the last stop of her and Nas’ Royalty Tour in 2019, superstar interviews from Diddy to Alicia Keys, and video snippets of a small listening party in Brooklyn that fit the mold of a group therapy session.
“It was really important to Mary that this film is about her fans, about their connection. It’s a love letter to her fans, so having her fans in it was a main priority,” Roth tells Billboard. “And the fan listening party was a way that I felt like, ‘Let’s get people not just to see Mary when they saw her at a meet-and-greet, which is great, but to talk with each other.’ That it would become what it did become was this therapeutic thing. The album inspires that because it talks about pain, trauma, longing, heartache, and we can all understand that. That session with everybody was really special, those fans in that room still stay in touch. … I think it showed the power of music and the power of sharing your trauma and feeling something and the connection that creates between people.”
But Roth added a special textural element to My Life that someone like 6-year-old Blige would appreciate: animations. Dreamy art sequences that look straight out of a children’s book depict a young, dizzy and confused Mary under the sunshine Roy Ayers sings about in his 1976 hit “Everybody Loves the Sunshine,” which was the first song that stuck with Blige at such a young age and served as inspiration for the title of her seminal album. The artwork also showcased how the singer began falling into a depression in her 20s that made her feel like she was drowning. Roth says she worked with Mighty Oak, an all-female animation studio based in Brooklyn, to bring those scenes to life.
“The little girl spinning represents how I felt as a little girl. You don’t understand the pain you’re in or going through until you’re older,” says Blige, who also serves as executive producer of the film. “So now looking back, it’s like, ‘Wow.’ The spinning represented a little girl just going through so many things and watching her mother struggle and trying to raise them. And she’s carrying her pain, carrying the neighbor’s pain, the women that were being beaten in the apartment next door. And she’s just a little girl trying to handle all this stuff. Imagine a little kid trying to weather all of these storms.”
Adds Roth: “I went through the film to think, ‘Where was there storytelling that Mary had that actually could link through the film that young Mary, that little Mary, the child Mary, to the Mary that she is today?’ I think if you took all the animation and made it into one string … it tells its own story, which is this inner-life of Mary and the evolution of her from someone who goes from this child where she hears ‘Everybody Loves the Sunshine’ and she’s in the sun. She told me this story of this spinning, this dizzying feeling listening to that song of something she couldn’t quite reach.”
Ayers’ repetitive mantra — “My life, my life, my life, my life in the sunshine” — left an indelible mark on Blige’s life and music. The lyrics to My Life‘s title track serve as title sequences that signal each chapter of the doc, from “See what I’ve seen” to “You’ll be at peace with yourself.”
“Each line takes us through that song,” Roth says. “We’re going through a linear story, but at the same time, it’s thematic, and each section represents what that line says. When Mary in the film listens to the song again, she’s like, ‘How did I write that when I was 24?’ because it actually speaks to her today.”
Blige reiterates many of her own phrases throughout the 82-minute film, from “I want to protect 6-year-old Mary” to “I didn’t know I was me.” While My Life was the album where the singer transformed her pain into joy, it wasn’t until after she released her seventh studio album, The Breakthrough, in 2005 when she felt like she had finally started to find herself. “It was just a process. Probably wasn’t until after The Breakthrough album, which is like 2005,” Blige recalls with a laugh. “And then even after that, it just went all downhill because I got married and the person wasn’t satisfied and he was just tearing me to pieces with all his negative words. And so it just went down. It was probably 2016, after the divorce, that I really started to understand, ‘You know what? I’m beautiful. I’m strong. I’m somebody. I am the truth.’ And I say that without arrogance; I say that with surety. I say it with humility.”
One person who was instrumental in helping Blige come into who she was as an artist was Uptown Records founder Andre Harrell, who died on May 7, 2020. His beaming demeanor and stories about building the “ghetto fabulous” movement he named Blige the “queen” of finds an unanticipated posthumous light in the film, which she dedicated to him in a letter signed “Your daughter” before the credits start rolling.
“It was painful because when Andre did the interviews for the documentary, no one was expecting for him to not be here right now,” says Blige. “Just how much he loved me all through my career, like he was really my father in the music business. And he protected me and gave me ideas and inspired me consistently. So it was a lot to watch him, but at the same time, like, ‘Wow, Andre. Thank you.’ I was happy to have him in my life.”