As the old saying goes, “the show must go on.” But the corollary to this axiom is the seldom-asked question, “but at what price?” Writer/director Levan Tsikurishvili’s fly-on-the-wall documentary Avicii: True Stories follows the meteoric rise of Tim Bergling from his early days when he was making beats in his bedroom in Stockholm through his transformation into Avicii, the undisputed king of house music. This intimate flick shows Bergling — an introvert thrust into mega-stardom at a perilously young age — as he becomes undone before our eyes under the weight of DJing hundreds of shows over six years. While somewhat pedestrian in its storytelling, the film is a powerfully cautionary tale of the vagaries fame and stardom.
House music is often maligned as a formulaic musical stepchild replete with innocuous, repetitive rhythm, devoid of few new ideas. There are a few standouts artists to be sure — DJs Tiesto and David Guetta, both of whom appear in the film, are among the best in the genre who have elevated and even transcended the form. But what Tim Bergling/Avicii — who took his stage name from the lowest level of Buddhist hell — brought to the table was truly unique. As legendary producer/performer Nile Rodgers notes in the film, Avicii was “the most natural melodic music writer I’ve ever met.” Beginning with his first big single “Levels” in 2011, which sampled “Something’s Got a Hold on Me” by Etta James, Avicii broke into top ten charts around the world.
“…thrust into mega-stardom at a perilously young age — as he becomes undone before our eyes under the weight of DJing hundreds of shows…”
Tsikurishvili catches the scarcely 21-year-old Avicii at this early stage of his career, just when he was hooking up with his svengali-esque manager, Ash. As captured in the film, Avicii is soon performing at some of the world’s biggest dance events including the famed Ultra party in Miami where he premieres tracks featuring Madonna and another with Lenny Kravitz.
As his success increases and his touring regimen amps up (every so often a counter of the number of shows he’s DJ’d over the past few years appears on-screen), the camera shows how the stress begins to take its toll on Bergling. By the time he releases the first single from his album True, the monstrous hit “Wake Me Up” featuring vocals from Aloe Blacc, his drinking to quell his nerves have increased drastically, and he begins looking a shell of his former self.
Soon enough, Bergling ends up in the hospital due to his relentless touring — a lifestyle that proves to be perhaps more grueling than glamorous. Even after rupturing his appendix and gallbladder, Bergling releases himself from his doctor’s care to fulfill his touring obligations. But his pain, both physical and psychological, continues to mount.
“…the camera shows how the stress begins to take its toll on Bergling.”
While the filmmaker does show moments of true happiness — most notably when Bergling is in the studio making his music or relaxing with friends — there are always wolves at his door pushing him to keep the tour and the party going. Thus, it’s no surprise that in 2018, after 813 punishing shows in some six years, Bergling — in a fight for his life really — decides to make a change. Haggard and spent, he remarks that he didn’t remember what home (was). “I got to a point where I didn’t like (touring) anymore. Fuck it, I’m gonna quit.” And after a few last concerts demanded by the vampires of the industry, the film shows Bergling retreating to a quiet beach in Madagascar where he remarks rather wryly that, “I don’t really have a plan.” And, after eight years of going nonstop, this feels refreshingly right.
All in all, Avicii: True Stories is a both an inspiring and pretty harrowing ride. While Bergling’s tale may not be entirely new, he was indisputably an incredible talent. The fact that the filmmakers were able to secure such intimate access to him over some successive years is quite impressive and allows the narrative to almost function in real time. The major hiccup in the doc is that it ends in 2016 with a title card announcing that Avicii is working on a new album — when in fact we now know that he died by suicide in 2018. Sadly his demons didn’t perish when he decided to cease touring. Thus, a critical part of Bergling/Avicii’ story remains untold and unexplored. Nonetheless, for fans of Avicii, house music, and music documentaries in general, Avicii: True Stories is well worth viewing; a portrait of an incredibly talented artist who “captured lightning in a bottle “ time and again during his tragically short life.
Avicii: True Stories (2018) Written and directed by Levan Tsikurishvili. Featuring Avicii, David Guetta, Tiësto, Wyclef Jean, Nile Rodgers, and Chris Martin.
6 out of 10 stars