Innovation and Addiction: Why DJ AM’s Story Needs to Be Heard
The focal point of As I AM: The Life and Time$ of DJ AM, the new documentary about the life and untimely passing of Adam Goldstein, aka DJ AM, is an unlikely audio clip of what is known in Alcoholics Anonymous as a “share.”
Recorded by Goldstein himself on his sober birthday, the talk serves as an oral autobiography, which drives the narrative of the film. “That was the jewel in the crown,” says writer/director Kevin Kerslake. “It enabled me to tell his story from the inside out. It also enabled me to see with one piece of material what he considered important.”
Goldstein earned cred in rap, rock, and pop; no genre was off-limits to him. As a DJ, he utilized his vast artillery to pioneer the open format and mash-up movements that ushered in EDM’s American explosion.
As brightly as AM shined in the spotlight, darkness swirled beneath the surface. Shadowed by substance abuse issues, DJing gave him renewed purpose as he got sober and climbed the celebrity ladder. But the demanding, often hedonistic lifestyle of the DJ party world would also precipitate his downfall and ultimately his death in 2009 at age 36.
As I AM delves deeper into the artist’s life by highlighting his professional and personal triumphs and serving as a warning call to the ongoing struggle with addiction. In some ways, it’s a cautionary tale that Kerslake is keen on spreading to the world. In the film, Goldstein’s substance issues and sobriety share weight with his trailblazing career, but finding the right balance didn’t make the filmmaking process easy.
“One of our tasks was to fit all of his life into a film that’s 90 minutes long,” says Kerslake, who also made sure to highlight Goldstein’s passion for sneakers and stickers (yes, stickers). “It’s important that his music story and the story of his work in the world of recovery is told. It was pretty gratifying to see that those extra dimensions resonated with others just as much as his music did.”
Though he didn’t know Goldstein on a personal level, Kerslake was well-equipped to take on the task of memorializing his life. An accomplished music director and documentarian, he’d worked previously with acts such as Nirvana, the Ramones, and Soundgarden. He had filmed AM at an early incarnation of HARD and also at Insomniac’s Electric Daisy Carnival. It was during the making of a documentary for the latter event that AM died. His EDC set appears in the film, Electric Daisy Carnival Experience, which Kerslake dedicated to his memory.
What differentiates As I AM from these other projects, Kerslake says, is its many dramatic arcs. Growing up in Philadelphia, Adam was abused by the man he thought was his father but later found out wasn’t. After a divorce, his mother moved the family to Los Angeles, where a teenage Goldstein was introduced to hard drugs, leading to an early stint in rehab. Issues with weight gain and depression followed, culminating in a failed suicide attempt.
This gritty upbringing juxtaposes more positive periods in Adam’s life, such as his rise through the music industry as a DJ at a time when DJs in America weren’t necessarily considered cool. After the demise of his band Crazy Town (known for the hits “Butterfly” and “Starry-Eyed Surprise”) Goldstein collaborated with Blink 182 drummer Travis Barker, and the two performed at clubs and private parties for high-profile Hollywood celebrities as TRV$DJAM.
Concurrent to this phase in his career, Goldstein was maintaining his sobriety while guiding other addicts through the recovery process. He had been in recovery for 11 years when he and Barker were in a fatal plane crash in September 2008. The accident injured the two musicians and killed the four other people on board. In pain from severe burns and post-traumatic stress as a result of the crash, Goldstein was prescribed painkillers and anti-anxiety medication – a particularly risky combination for a recovering addict.
“It opened the door for the substance abuse to come back into his life and ultimately overwhelm him,” says Kerslake.
Despite the severity of the situation, Goldstein was quick to get back into a regular rhythm, performing less than three months after the accident and boarding planes to fly to gigs. This fast-paced lifestyle, compounded by physical and psychological anguish, caused him to lapse into old, self-destructive habits. Less than one year after the crash, on August 28, 2009, DJ AM died from an overdose of prescription drugs and cocaine.
“He had devoted his life to helping other people in recovery,” Kerslake says. “I think that when you’re looking at situations like that, what people might consider to be a typical music documentary takes on a lot more shades of real, serious drama.”
When compiling the footage for the documentary, Kerslake was granted total access to Goldstein’s possessions and in the process discovered a treasure trove of material. “Adam was a pack rat in a digital sense; he had over 70,000 stills and 10,000 videos on his laptops,” Kerslake explains. “Then there’s the stuff that I’ve shot, that others have shot, and then stuff that other people gave me or I hunted down.”
As a documentarian, Kerslake’s task was to find a story among all the material and tell it in a way that was authentic, as if viewers were experiencing AM’s life with him. This included the good times (footage of him early in his DJ career, rapping at a backyard party and at a spinning battle to happy moments with longtime girlfriend Nicole Richie) and the not-so good (from the various stages of his gastric bypass procedure to his body being “peeled raw” after the crash).
What DJ AM left behind was a musical subculture that has since become a phenomenon bigger than he could have ever imagined. “He came up at a time where there was no bottle service in clubs, the events were pretty underground and there were no velvet ropes,” Kerslake says. “It was just a completely different scene from now. But because he was so popular in the club world, he sort of helped grow it up.”
Artists who followed in DJ AM’s stylistic footsteps like Steve Aoki, Diplo and A-Trak, all of whom appear in the film alongside a number of other artists and industry folk, command top billing wherever they go. They’ve all held coveted (and lucrative) residencies in some of Las Vegas’ most lavish venues.
“Adam still loved dingy clubs and the underground shit; that’s where his heart was,” says Kerslake. “But because he was so popular in the club world, he sort of helped grow it up. What it did was help get DJs paid; it helped DJs earn enough so that that’s all they needed to do: they could just concentrate on being artists.”
In part, As I AM is a celebration of Goldstein’s musical contributions. What Kerslake most wants audiences to take away from it, however, is the concept of “consciousness”: the consciousness of AM’s decisions in dealing with the crash, and the consciousness of those around him as he battled, and ultimately succumbed to, his demons.
“We’ve lost a lot of people in the arts and entertainment world to similar circumstances,” Kerslake concludes. “I think that’s often because people don’t recognize the signs when they’re out there because they’re so subtle. There’s a little bit of shame around what people are going through and wanting to reach out for help.”
“It’s okay to reach out for help and it’s okay to reach out and help somebody,” Kerslake adds. “Unfortunately, AM’s life didn’t have a happy ending because those things didn’t happen.”
As I AM is still waiting for a release date. As the film is self-financed, Kerslake and his team are crowdfunding the estimated $125,000 cost of music licensing and distribution. Perks for donors include items from DJ AM’s personal collections. Contribute to the campaign here.