Swedish-born music producer became huge concert draw, but struggled with pressures of fame
The music video for Avicii's breakthrough song "Levels" has racked up more than 380 million views on YouTube. His video for the song "Wake Me Up" -- that's been viewed 1.7 billion times.
Those numbers give a sense of the worldwide popularity of the late artist, born Tim Bergling, who has variously been described as a remixer, DJ and music producer. In his relatively brief life -- he died by suicide in April of this year at the age of 28 -- he became a top arena draw on an international scale, performing his brand of electronic dance music (EDM) for crowds that reached 70,000 per concert. But as the new documentary Avicii: True Stories reveals, he never became comfortable with fame and he struggled with intense anxiety.
It feels good for me to be able to help to carry on his legacy, whether it's on the music side or his personal side.
Director Levan Tsikurishvili got to know his subject over a lengthy period in which he documented Avicii in his native Sweden to points around the globe.
"We spent many years together, shared the same house and daily life [over] two, three, four years," Tsikurishvili tells Nonfictionfilm.com. "I would say we got very close to each other."
The film opened Friday at the Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills; it opens next Friday (December 21) at Cinema Village in New York, after an international release that has seen the documentary play in Sweden and other European countries and as far away as Uruguay. It was completed well before Avicii's untimely death in Muscat, Oman.
As a teenager Bergling demonstrated an uncanny ear for rhythm and beats, posting his early remixes to music forums. In 2011 his song "Levels," which sampled Etta James' recording of "Something's Gotta Hold of Me," became a mega-hit. It also helped push EDM into the mainstream, putting DJ/remixers like Avicii on a par with more traditional recording stars in terms of audience appeal.
"DJs nowadays are the musicians that people were used to 20 years back," Tsikurishvili observes. "It's modernization of the entire music creation."
With laptop and recording studio, Avicii could make dazzling, danceable hits, collaborating with Madonna, Coldplay's Chris Martin, Wyclef Jean, Rita Ora and other talents. In the film, Wyclef compares him to Bach.
"The usual preconceptions about DJs used to be like, 'Oh, they only come and press play and that's it,'" the director comments. "Most of the people don't know that those people [mega-DJs] are musicians and they're producers, exactly in the same way as The Rolling Stones or Queen or Led Zeppelin or whoever you want to compare them to."
Images from Avicii's Instagram feed
Bergling/Avicii described himself as shy and ill at ease being the center of attention. It was perhaps not the ideal disposition for someone who, almost accidentally, became an arena act performing for massive crowds of adoring fans.
Tsikurishvili got a unique angle filming the phenomenon of Avicii in concert.
"I used to hide right behind Tim so the crowd didn't see me," he reveals. "But you are staying in exactly the same position as he does and I really wanted to give the perspective to the viewers of what he saw when he was up in the DJ booth... It is unreal, definitely, to see 50,000 people scream or cheer."
The stereotypical image of Swedes is of an emotionally contrained people. But Bergling was exceptionally open about his struggles to cope with the pressures that came with growing renown. He sought comfort in alcohol to manage his anxiety.
"He was super open as a person about himself," Tsikurishvili recalls. "He had this honesty and openness that I almost haven't seen in any other person, so that was something that I learned a lot about and kind of took inspiration for myself."
The film suggests Avicii's management pushed him too hard to keep performing despite the DJ's mounting physical and mental health issues. But Tsikurishvili himself is reluctant to pass judgment.
"I would like to be neutral when it comes to that as the director," he tells Nonfictionfilm.com. "I would not make any comments on that, to be honest with you."
What he will comment on is Avicii's capacity both for introspection and understanding of others.
"That was something that captured my attention from the very beginning," he notes. "His emotional intelligence was very high."
Avicii's EQ was even demonstrated during a visit he made with Tsikurishvili to the jungle of Madagascar, the director recalls. "We get there and we were having a super simple lunch like bananas and fruit. These lemurs showed up and they started to steal our food and it was super cute. Those lemurs were just so lovely, but one of them wanted to take Tim's banana and bit him on the finger really heavily."
Tsikurishvili says he was struck by their different reactions to the incident.
"I was so upset the lemur bit him, kind of like angry. Tim started to defend the lemur. He was like, 'No, he didn't mean anything wrong. He just thought my finger was a banana as well, like food. It was just a huge mistake."' Tsikurishvili remembers. "I went in with the thought that the lemur was the bad guy because he hurt my friend. But he had this different point of view on that, different angle. And that really taught me the size of the emotional intelligence [he possessed]. I've never seen that in any other human being."
The director prefers not to speak about his friend's death. But he would like his film to serve as a tribute to him.
"I really hope people see how he was. I think the film honors him in a great way," he says. "It feels good for me to be able to help to carry on his legacy, whether it's on the music or his personal side."
The director thinks there are lessons to be learned from Avicii's experience, especially for young people who harbor illusions about fame.
"You're not learning in school that stardom is not good. You're only learning the good side of it. And honestly, what's stardom? I don't believe in that and Tim didn't believe in that either," Tsikurishvili insists. "I think that's something that human beings have made up and people are running into it... I don't say people who like stardom are not good. What I mean is that it's good to kind of study that. What is stardom and what does it mean to be a star?"
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.