Ives set about finding four more artists to join his singer-songwriter friend on screen. Those other artists are Jasika Nicole, a stage and screen actor who has a recurring role in the TV series The Good Doctor – painter, Dan McCaw – Jeff Nishinaka, a remarkable paper sculptor – and Aaron Tap, musician, record producer and guitarist for Matt Nathanson. All five artists are ‘somewhere in the middle’ both in terms of where they are in their careers and the level of success they’ve reached thus far.
As a concept, this is a great area for exploration and calls into question how we think about art and artists and, more importantly, how we measure success. It’s especially relevant in a world where the quantity of our ‘likes’ and ‘friends’ and ‘shares’ is often more important to us than their quality. Bringing together these five artists whose work we’re more likely NOT to be familiar with than if they were what we might think of as a bunch of celebrities, opens up the possibility for a more direct and insightful examination of a fascinating subject. In its execution, however, the documentary only goes part way towards any deep revelations about art and success.
In his approach to the five subjects, Ives opts for a pretty meat-and-potatoes style of interviewing – single camera, subject seated, a domestic or workplace setting and the whole interview seemingly completed in one go. It also becomes clear very quickly that each of the five artists are responding to the same set of questions in the same order. This, of course, makes for easy editing between different interviews providing different responses to the same general question, but doesn’t inspire much of the kind of spontaneity you get when subjects go ‘off script’ or interact over a series of interviews. The questions themselves are mostly predictable – how did you get started, when did you know, what was the hardest thing, what advice would you give to your younger self etc. etc. – all questions that we’ve probably heard before in extended news or current affairs interviews, but nothing that really digs deep into the heart of the matter as we might expect in a feature documentary.
The intercutting between the five artists’ responses to the set of questions is, itself, intercut with clips of them at work, but in these moments we have no interactions with them; just an ‘outsiders’ view of musicians on stage, or artists in the studio, or an actor on set. What’s missing from this documentary is context and perspective. When the ‘voice to camera’ work is all one voice, we only get that point-of view. Where are the other voices in this story who could have provided the kind of insight to these artists that they can’t provide themselves? Where are the voices (like those fans after Griffin House’s gig) who assume that success means more that what these artists have already achieved? In the end, Somewhere in the Middle offers us some interesting observations made by artists about themselves and their careers and work practices and, as such, is engaging up to a point, but doesn’t break any new ground or throw up enough challenge to the ways we think about fame and fortune. It’s not a bad documentary, but it never really achieves the kind of perception and insight that great documentaries manage to find. I guess it’s somewhere in the middle.