A silhouette of the grim reaper is visible through the branches. The documentary’s opening scene begins where it ultimately ends, in death, but not literally for its subject, Moby, who is very much alive. Partially existential—with a fixation on his past, packed with all its foibles and destitution, the present sense of intentional ignorance of the outside voices, and Moby’s incessant infatuation with the afterlife—Moby Doc is a mostly first-person account of the most poignant, deprived, euphoric, and just plain odd moments in the musical and personal life of the electronic music pioneer.
Initially conceptualized five years earlier as a film chronicling the making of Moby’s acoustic (and 19th) album, Reprise, a collection of handpicked tracks from the artist’s 30-plus year career backed by a Hungarian orchestra and reimagined in more epic form, the film transitioned into a deeper narrative of the artist’s life. Moby Doc is a visual elaboration of the artist’s previous memoirs, Porcelain, which covers his life pre-fame, in 2016 and follow up Then It Fell Apart in 2019.
Along with director Rob Bralver, Moby, born Richard Melville Hall on Septembert 11, 1965 in Harlem, New York, narrates choice moments from his upbringing, a mostly dysfunctional and impoverished childhood in Connecticut. He grew up in a house full of pets—including lab rats his father rescued from work, depicted throughout the film by three toy mice puppeteered and filmed by Moby. His alcoholic father died when he was just a child, and bleak days with his mother then followed. The film seesaws between Moby’s musical life of creating electronic music with living in an abandoned warehouse and deejaying in the 1980s. He endured addiction and depression before his fifth album Play exploded on the scene in 1999. Through it all, he has maintained his commitment to animal activism and, ultimately, to returning to form and making music.
“The documentary went off in a whole bunch of other very surreal, odd directions,” says Moby from his Los Angeles home studio. “There are lots of almost existential chapters and lots of life chapters.”
Avoiding the typical “talking heads” of most documentaries, Moby opted for guest appearances, sharing individual pensive moments and memories through segments with longtime friend and collaborator Julie Mintz and playing therapist and other therapeutic conversations with David Lynch, Apollo Jane, Mindy Jones, artist Gary Baseman. Moby even helms a reenacted scene from his youth, featuring Laura Dawn as his mother, Daniel Ahearn as the “scumbag boyfriend” and Daron Murphy playing a “young Moby,” bringing some bittersweet humor to a memory that’s difficult to digest.
“Rob [Bralver] and I decided to give ourselves creative license and create something a lot more idiosyncratic than a traditional music documentary, because as we know, music docs, they tend to be very similar, and chronological,” says Moby. “We thought, ‘Let’s try and make something different that also addresses some sort of ostensibly important existential issues, then let the documentary be weird and artistic and idiosyncratic when you want it to be.’”
Covering nearly every genre throughout his career, Moby has never been opposed to experimenting with a more acoustic and orchestral piece, a project piqued following his 2018 performance with the LA Philharmonic.
“Musically, I’ve always loved everything in terms of different genres,” says Moby. “When I was growing up, I studied music theory, I studied classical composition, I played jazz, but I also played in punk rock bands. Then, when I was getting into electronic music in the ’80s, I was also playing drums in a hardcore punk band and playing acoustic folk music, so I’ve never felt the need to sort of prioritize one genre over another or even focus on one genre over another.”
In piecing together Reprise, Moby gravitated toward more intense tracks, searching for a certain degree of emotional gravitas that would accompany the more sweeping orchestrations. He delivers some stripped back versions of Play tracks, from the acoustic-led “Everloving,” and soul-fused “Natural Blues,” featuring Gregory Porter and Amythyst Kiah. My Morning Jacket’s Jim James wraps around a stirring string-and piano-fueled “Porcelain,” along with Moby, a track that reappears throughout the film in various forms. Picking from Innocents (2013), Mark Lanegan returns for an eerie oration of “The Lonely Night” with Kris Kristofferson and a swelling close of “The Last Day” sung by Skylar Grey and Darlingside.
Mindy Jones delivers a stirring “Heroes,” the only cover, an ode to Moby’s friend David Bowie, while the Twin Peaks-sampled “Go” from his 1992 debut Moby plays out in a less-techno, more tribal jazz arrangement. Pulling the sole Hotel (2005) track “Lift Me Up,” and lone “God Moving Over the Face of the Water” with Vikingur Ólafsson from Everything is Wrong (1995), the melancholic “Extreme Ways” from 18 and mistier “The Great Escape” with Nataly Dawn, Alice Skye, Luna Li round out the six featured albums of Reprise.
“In the course of my life, I’ve made a lot of different types of songs and a lot of different types of music,” shares Moby. “I know that might seem very self-evident, but in making this record, the songs on the album tend to be a little more vulnerable, melancholy, dramatic. Apart from ‘We’re All Made of Stars,” there aren’t really too many fun songs on the record.”
After looking at London, Berlin, and Memphis orchestras, Moby eventually landed on Hungary’s Budapest Art Orchestra to work through the 13 arrangements on Reprise. “There are lots of great orchestras, but they tend to not be in places with equally great recording studios” says Moby. “If you go to London to record or even LA, it’s challenging, because these orchestras are in such demand that if you ask them to work a little bit over time, they simply won’t be able to. I guess with the orchestra in Hungary, there was just a little more, no pun intended, hunger on their part.”
For Reprise, Moby was pulled from his small studio setting to record in various studios with singers and choirs and string quartets and engineers, which he calls a very “gregarious” process. “Usually when I work, it’s very isolated and monastic,” says Moby. “Instead of me just being by myself alone in the studio, which is how I make 99 percent of my music, I was actually interacting with real human beings, which is a different way of working. In the ’80s, I was living in an abandoned factory, and I had a tiny little studio in a small space, and now I live in a house that I think is pretty nice and comfortable, but I still have a small studio in a small space. I’ve basically worked in the same size space, regardless of career success or lack of career success.”
His seventh album, Hotel (2005), which he worked on outside his own studio, is admittedly one of his least favorite albums. Despite the flop of his hardcore punk driven Animal Rights, a blunt departure for his electronic following—its failure and immediate impact on Moby are documented in the film—is still an album Moby treasures.
“When it came out, it was essentially almost a career-killing album, but I’m also kind of pleased in a way that I was able to release it, because we live in a world where a lot of musicians make very conservative choices,” says Moby of his 1996 release. “A lot of musicians pick an identity and pick a genre, and they stay in it because they don’t want to run the risk of alienating fans or alienating media or journalists. I guess I always thought that part of the job description for a musician was not necessarily being bound by conservative constraints.”
He adds, “Perhaps, it would have been easier if in 1991 I had become an electronic musician and never done anything different, but that seems really arbitrarily restrictive.”
Another constant for Moby is writing. “The way I’ve always approached making music is to simply start making it, whether it’s acoustic music, electronic music, whether it’s dance music, or punk rock, or classical music, and see what happens,” says Moby. “I don’t think I’ve ever really thought about a piece of music before sitting down to write it or play it. It’s not a terribly pre-planned or cerebral process. It tends to be very automatic, and if there is a cerebral element, it kicks in later, or it’s almost like precognitive working on music just for the love of working on music.”
Shot predominantly from his comfort zone at home, Moby Doc is ultimately a film about Moby, told by Moby. “From my perspective, it’s about approaching art, or music or books, or whatever, with the idea of trying to make something that you find creative and compelling, but also trying to make something that isn’t a waste of people’s time, that’s not gratuitous, that’s not arbitrary, and that somehow reflects the artist or the filmmaker or the writer’s experience of the human condition,” says Moby. “Regardless of who we are socio economically, ethnically, whatever the human condition, the ultimate conclusion to the human condition affects us all, which is, we get old, we get scared, we die.”
Towards the end of the film, the grim reaper is revealed in the woods, a moving being that interacts with Moby, who asks the question, “What happens when we die?”
“It is funny that we all have so many opinions about death, when death itself doesn’t change,” says Moby. “Our response to it is fascinating… people pretending that they’re going to stay young forever, pretending that everyone around them is going to stay alive forever, and that death and mortality are not waiting for every living thing on the planet. For better or worse, the sad, inescapable truth is that death and mortality are sort of baked into every biological thing that has ever existed. It’s the only fact every person knows, it’s the only fact everybody has in common—we all die.”
In answer to his question about life after death, Moby’s life flashes before him.
“No one knows what happens, so it’s the one thing I find comfort in, the fact that my opinion about mortality and death really doesn’t matter all that much,” says Moby. “What gives me a profound sense of comfort is when I look at the natural world, whether it’s just looking at trees, looking at immune systems, looking at cells under a microscope, and realizing how unbelievably complicated and almost perfect the natural world is, and realizing on a very quantum material level, or a very corporeal level, we all come from the natural world, and we’re all going back to it. And I find that idea of what happens when we’re essentially reunited with its unspeakably complicated, flawless, natural world so fascinating and comforting.”
Moby adds, “I like being alive, but I’m also incredibly fascinated to see what happens after we die.”