New Documentary Examines The Life And Times of DJ AM

By Amy Dresner 09/25/15

The film does not shy away from showing the extent of AM’s demons, his fiendish excess with food, sex, drugs, smoking, sneaker collecting, DJ'ing and finally sobriety.

The Life And Times of DJ AM, Documented
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As I Am: The Life And Times of DJ AM is the riveting and heartbreaking documentary about Adam Goldstein aka DJ AM, chronicling not just his addiction and personal life, but also his inspiring sobriety and groundbreaking DJ career. It is peppered with interviews from friends and colleagues including Mark Ronson, Steve Aoki, A-Trak, Mix Master Mike, Diplo, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Jon Favreau and Dr. Drew among others.

The film opens with footage from inside a police car racing to the scene of the fiery plane crash that killed four people and severely burned DJ AM and Blink 182’s Travis Barker. We overhear the voice of AM speaking at an AA meeting on his 11th sober birthday: “There’s a universal lie that I’ve pretty much believed my whole life, which is: ‘As I am, I’m not enough’ (and whence the film’s title).

I got the opportunity to speak with both the director Kevin Kerslake and AM’s mother, Andrea Gross.

Kevin Kerslake is known for his award-winning music videos for such groups as Nirvana, Green Day, R.E.M., the Rolling Stones, Rise Against and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He’d met AM briefly backstage when Kevin’s crew was filming at the Electric Daisy Carnival, Hard Summer, Haunted Mansion and other music festivals. When I asked him why he wanted to make this movie he said, "I think the music element was one of the more alluring of AM’s story but I was drawn to the other elements of his life: his work in the world of recovery, what he faced in terms of difficulties in his own personal life, what he inherited in terms of the baggage he was forced to carry and how he overcame those obstacles with the grace that he did. The totality of all those things distinguishes this movie from a film about a DJ or about addiction.”

Kerslake’s portrayal of addiction and recovery are so spot on that I wondered if he’d had any experience with addiction himself. “Most of my work is in the music world, the entertainment industry, and you see a lot of people with diminished self-worth and addiction there. Music and entertainment is where all the misfits and talented people go and talent yields to issues like these. So yes, I was familiar with some of the day-to-day struggles of people…I lost a lot of friends to that fight.”

I recognized some faces from LA meetings and asked Kerslake if he’d had any issues with the tradition of anonymity. “Not everybody held the same line. They were always aware of what they were saying and where they stood in terms of the edict of anonymity. Some people were so respectful of anonymity they didn’t want to be seen on camera. There are as many interviews in the movie that aren’t in the movie.”

“There was a paradox in terms of where AM stood in relation to the edict: using his position and stature in the world to help reach more people, pulled a great volume out of the hell. But all that pulls in ego. You’re on the poster. You’re the poster boy. And you believe it. You’re invincible. He had a model program but it’s never model enough. I don’t know any other human behavior that doesn’t allow for a little hiccup or back sliding,” Kerslake said.

The problem with that pedestal, that ominous label of beacon of sobriety, is that it’s hard to ask for help. There’s an expectation that if you have double-digit sobriety, you shouldn’t be struggling anymore. When I asked AM's mother about that, she said, “It would make Adam feel even worse because he knew he wasn’t being true to himself. He felt guilty not being honest.”

“When I was trolling the message boards, I saw so much inhumane unforgiving base behavior about AM’s slip,” Kerslake said. “So much projection, that somebody else’s recovery is your own crutch. His sobriety meant so much to so many other people. He was cornered. He didn’t want to let anybody down.”

The documentary is self-financed and independently produced. No easy feat. I asked Kerslake why he went that route. “It’s sensitive subject matter in terms of AM’s place in music and the forensics of AM’s decline and his addiction. I didn’t want to be beholden to one truth at the expense of another. I didn’t want to make concessions to some studio exec. They tend to villainize people, make everything black and white, and life is more complicated than that. They might have said make it less dark, which would have been less truthful.”

Gross wants to make something clear that she didn’t say in the film. “When I put Adam into Straight, Inc., at 16, even though there was some really bad stuff about Straight, he learned how to write his feelings down there, journal, and that is a vital part of AA. Also, when he hit rock bottom at 25, he knew he had to go back to AA. And if it wasn’t for Straight, he wouldn’t have known that. “

Gross confides, “An old timer told Adam if you take AA to heart and work hard at the 12-step program, you will become one of the most famous DJs that ever lived. And that was that.” (Ah yes, the promises. They keep me sober and fuel my dreams of a NYT best-seller and "fuck you" money every day.)

The documentary does not shy away from showing the extent of AM’s demons, his fiendish excess with food, sex, drugs, smoking, sneaker collecting, DJ'ing and finally sobriety. “Unfortunately, addiction does not go away. Once you have an addictive personality, it can go into all other addictions, including food.” Gross confessed that she was responsible for introducing AM to the donut and peanut butter sandwich we see him eating in the documentary. “The devil is in the donut bakery,” she told me. 

After the plane crash, AM had severe burns, underwent multiple skin grafts, had PTSD and survivor’s guilt. That alone could have sent somebody into a relapse. But on top of that, he was put on Xanax. “If he hadn’t been in that plane crash, he wouldn’t have overdosed,” Gross attests. “They put him on the wrong medication. He knew that Xanax was not good for him but he continued to fly and he was anxious. He had major commitments. He thought, ‘If I keep busy I’ll be okay.’” 

“It doesn't even take all that to set you back,” Kerslake said. “This doesn’t need to happen. I have seen nothing that breaks down why it’s happening. What are all the conditions surrounding relapse? Work life? People around him? Not just dope or depression. Everybody wants to reset the button like it’s all the same before the same crash.”

When I asked Gross if she had anything to say to parents of addicts, she told me, “No mother or father is perfect. We do things we regret. I can think of things I wish I had never done. But Adam always knew I adored him. So I know he forgave me. Love your kids. Go to Al-Anon because there is support there. Love them regardless. Hope and pray that they’ll take AA to heart.”

And what did Kerslake learn from making the film? “You come to appreciate the power of that monster and how it just fucks with people in the most merciless way and the diligence that’s required.”

What do you want everybody to know about Adam, I asked Gross. “Everybody loved him. He was a very likeable person. He had a lot of friends, kept them from the time he was in junior high school. He answered every email. His service in AA was remarkable. He was very funny. I miss him every day. I want to be with him. The pain never goes away. “

“Fame is lethal,” she added. When you think about all the people who are famous who overdose: Whitney Houston, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Fame. Really, it’s a burden. An added burden that nobody talks about.”

As I Am premiered at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival and the 2015 Hot Docs Festival. The film is set for release this winter.

You can donate to the Indiegogo campaign for the film here.

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Amy Dresner is a recovering drug addict and all around fuck up. She’s been regularly writing for The Fix since 2012. When she isn't humorously chronicling her epic ups and downs for us, she's freelancing for Refinery 29, Alternet, After Party Chat, Salon, The Frisky, Cosmo Latina, Unbound Box, and Psychology Today. Her first book, My Fair Junkie: A Memoir of Getting Dirty and Staying Clean was published in September 2017 by Hachette Books. Follow her on Twitter @amydresner.