Amazon’s ‘A Man Named Scott’: Film Review

Kid Cudi opens up about his music, his life and his artistic philosophy in an intimate documentary directed by Robert Alexander.

Tucked in the depths of Kid Cudi’s kaleidoscopic discography is a slow-tempo, diaristic record emblematic of the musician’s relationship with his most ardent fans and toughest critics. “Handle With Care,” the ninth track on Cudi’s menacing Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven, opens with a gentle directive — “Pardon me babe, there are instructions I think that you should read” — before plunging into the confessional. He warns of his delicate heart, essential to his capacity to love and at the same time a liability in terms of his behavior. With its blunt lyrics and despondent melody, “Handle With Care” is the kind of moody, unvarnished song that turned a generation of listeners navigating heartbreak, depression and rudimentary nihilism into Cudi stans.

Cudi, born Scott Mescudi, doesn’t talk about “Handle With Care” or even Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven in the intimate Amazon documentary A Man Named Scott, but its underlying message frames this uneven, occasionally affecting story of an artist yearning for peace. Since he entered the music scene more than a decade ago, Cudi has been embroiled in a bitter public battle with his depression. His records double as therapy sessions, a zone in which the musician admits his suicidal ideations and confronts his feelings of hopelessness. Implicit in the blunt lyrics, which have been called melodramatic and manipulative when the more accurate assessment is that they often lack subtlety, are relatable pleas for understanding and salvation.

A Man Named Scott

The Bottom Line

Endearingly portrays one man’s search for peace.

Release date: Friday, Nov. 5

Director: Robert Alexander

1 hour 35 minutes

It makes sense, then, that A Man Named Scott reads as a future note to self, a letter to a Cudi who, amid a depressive episode, might need to be reminded of his cultural impact and his place in the hearts of his friends and family. Directed by Robert Alexander, who helms LeBron James and Maverick Carter’s HBO talk show The Shop, the documentary mixes the standard fare of interviews (friends, collaborators, admirers and even a clinical psychologist all have an opportunity to speak) with more experimental elements that, unfortunately, usually detract more than they add. While I enjoyed it enough, I imagine this documentary, much as it is with Cudi’s music, will be received with a mix of eye rolls and adoration.

The film opens with Pharrell Williams discussing, in a way that only a certain kind of celebrity can, the advent of the internet, focusing on how it democratized creative spaces and nurtured a generation of uninhibited artists. Cudi, whose most popular song, “Day ‘N’ Nite,” lived on his MySpace page before radio stations picked it up, is undoubtedly a part of this group. His early work was praised for its fresh production and vulnerable lyrics, points that his collaborators, from producer Dot da Genius to Cudi’s biggest fan, Kanye West, repeatedly stress throughout A Man Named Scott. Such an introduction, however strange, gives the film license to cover topics beyond Cudi. It becomes a visual treatise on creative processes and the power artists wield. The jury is still out on whether that was a good idea, though, because at times the musician’s journey is subsumed by tangential personal anecdotes, as in an interview with Schoolboy Q, or too-broad proclamations about capital-A art.

When the focus returns to Cudi and his music, however, the film assumes a more credibly intimate orientation. Biographical details — Cudi was born in Cleveland and moved to Brooklyn to pursue music, taking whatever jobs came to him and spending most days in Genius’ studio — are revealed organically, mostly through conversations with Cudi himself. The two interviews that Alexander conducted with the film’s subject successfully emphasize the different parts of his personality. In Japan, Cudi sits in a resplendent room, gold basically oozing from the walls. It’s larger than life, much like the way he sees his music personality. In Italy, the room is spare and Cudi is less jocular and more contemplative as he details his struggles with mental health issues. As a fan of the musician, I gained the most from these conversations, which showcased Cudi’s magnetic charm and revealed poignant moments of self-reflection.

Genius, West and producers Emile Haynie and Plain Pat supplement these accounts and rhapsodize about Cudi’s ear for melody and his appetite for blending genres and sounds. It’s this inclination that first attracted West to Cudi. He asked the rapper to fly out to Hawaii and work on what would become West’s fourth studio album, 808s & Heartbreak. On Cudi’s first night there, he helped write “Heartbreak,” and an enduring friendship with West was born. Other interviewees, like Willow Smith, Shia LaBeouf and Lil Yachty speak to the singularity of Cudi’s artistic visions, his ability to realize them and what this inspires in younger artists. It’s Yachty who eventually intimates, most clearly, Cudi’s significance when he says, “I appreciate him for being him so I could be me.”

And isn’t that the secret? Cudi tries never to betray himself — even when he stumbles. And stumble he did. A Man Named Scott is structured chronologically, taking us through the highest and lowest points of Cudi’s career. After the release of his highly anticipated debut, Man on the Moon: The End of Day (2009), the pressures of celebrity began to grate on Cudi. He had everything he wanted, but he was unhappy. Living his vulnerability publicly came at a cost, and the musician’s life was moving at an unsustainable pace. “I never worried about the music part,” says Sylvia Rhone, the current CEO of Epic Records who fought aggressively to sign Cudi early in his career. “I only worried about him. He was a guy that stayed to himself a lot. In the beginning it was a hard adjustment to make.”

Cudi’s later albums, like Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven (2015) and Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’ (2016), reflect the extremity of his depressive episodes. They’re uneven experimental records, swerving from rage to dejection. When asked about them, Cudi refuses to get into it. He’s in a better place now, he insists, and he’d like to keep it that way. What we do know is that in October 2016, Cudi penned a lengthy Facebook post divulging the depths of his suffering and announcing that he had checked himself into rehab for depression and suicidal urges. “I’m not at peace,” he wrote. “I haven’t been since you’ve known me.” He ends the note with a nod toward optimism and a promise: “I’ll be back stronger, better. Reborn.”

A Man Named Scott presents a stronger Cudi, one who is trying to make good on that promise to himself and his fans. In his interviews for the film, he speaks from a place of confidence and ease. Yet that doesn’t always translate to the aesthetic choices made. If you’re an enthusiastic fan, obvious visual cues — a prolonged shot of TVs stacked in an empty warehouse as Cudi reminisces about his mother’s early observation that he should be on television; a triptych of footage of an astronaut on the moon accompanying Schoolboy Q’s lamentation about rap music’s narrow subject areas — might register as endearing. But these, along with the slow-motion scenes of artists at work, start to feel like forced attempts at profundity, as if Cudi’s testimony alone hasn’t always been enough.

Full credits

Distributor: Amazon
Production companies: Mad Solar, Film 45
Director: Robert Alexander
Producers: Christopher Noviello, Brandon Riley
Executive producers: Scott Mescudi, Peter Berg, Matthew Goldberg, Brandon Carroll, Cornell Brown, Damien Scott, Robert Alexander, Dennis Cummings, Justin Killion, Melanie Moreau
Director of photography: Nathan Salter
Production designer: Adrina Rose Garibian
Editors: Freddie DeLaVega, Joseph Volpe
Composer: Nathan Matthew David

1 hour 35 minutes