Dictaphone Blues: How Danny Cohen Captured Courtney Barnett’s Inner Voice

An illustration of loneliness: Courtney Barnett in yet another green room. — Photographer… Danny Cohen
An illustration of loneliness: Courtney Barnett in yet another green room. Photographer… Danny Cohen

Anonymous Club director Danny Cohen on mental health, green rooms, 16mm film, collecting movie posters and how he got musician Courtney Barnett to open up.

It’s every night, for years. You really have to set the film up the right way to be able to sit in those moments and enjoy watching this person stand on the spot.” —⁠Danny Cohen, director of Anonymous Club

Observational music documentaries have become a standard device in the artist marketing toolkit; the “all-access” illusion of baring one’s soul part of the strategy to bring fans closer to their idols. Documentaries about Billie Eilish for Apple TV+ and the likes of Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Jennifer Lopez and Blackpink for Netflix all take us somewhat inside the tent. 

That’s not to say these films aren’t illuminating for those seeking details on how to hold an empire in your vulnerable, creative hands—and they are very much stamped with the marks of their directors, as well as the artists in the frame. Swift’s political coming-out in Miss Americana is a highlight of that film; the insights into Gaga’s daily dealings with pain grounds Five Foot Two; Eilish getting her driving license is a wholly relatable moment in The World’s a Little Blurry. But you do wonder how much you’re really being let in, versus how much is just enough to service the marketing campaign. 

These thoughts were in Danny Cohen’s mind when he set out to follow Courtney Barnett for the film that would become Anonymous Club. The stand-out music doc for our Festiville crew at this year’s SXSW Film Festival, it is a 16mm Kodak-film portrait of the Australian musician in the period between her albums Tell Me How You Really Feel and Things Take Time, Take Time. It’s the Melbourne-based director’s first film in a career of high-concept photography and music videos; his many collaborators include King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, Kirin J. Callinan, plus a long-time creative partnership with Barnett herself.

City looks pretty: Barnett mid-gig in the United States — Photographer… Danny Cohen
City looks pretty: Barnett mid-gig in the United States Photographer… Danny Cohen

Fresh from seeing the film during SXSW, I wroteAnonymous Club is hopeful, funny and cathartic. The film captures Barnett at a time when the musician is struggling to tell us how she really feels, even while asking her growing legion of fans to do the same.” To get around Barnett’s introversion, Cohen gave her a Dictaphone with which she could tape her thoughts in private, and juxtaposed her recorded musings with footage of the relentless tour cycle of show, shower, eat, sleep, bus, soundcheck, warm-up, repeat. 

As we watch Barnett go from inarticulate loner (“I woke up having one of those, like, just feeling sad days”) to bona-fide rock star, Anonymous Club is certainly fan service. But more than that, it is patiently present. 

You won’t find out salacious or even many ordinary personal details about Barnett (the documentary’s timeline starts around when she and her Milk! Records co-founder Jen Cloher ended their relationship, not that you’d know it from the film). But you will see something quietly extraordinary: a tricky-to-capture mental health transformation, documented in subtle shifts in her audio diaries, her willingness to play with the camera, even her attitude toward her hairstyle. And, there’s top cat content.  

Need a little time: Barnett writes in a hotel room on a world tour. — Photographer… Danny Cohen
Need a little time: Barnett writes in a hotel room on a world tour. Photographer… Danny Cohen

Knowing that Cohen’s 16mm filming approach meant he would never have immediate access to his footage while on the road, I hopped on Zoom curious to learn how he went about pulling together a story he couldn’t see straight away. When we met, he was just updating his Letterboxd with a three-star rating of Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, and his recent activity—The Last Temptation of Christ, various Werner Herzog films including Fitzcarraldo and its making-of—reveals some specific areas of interest. “I’m on a real Jesus trip at the moment,” he laughs.

I’m a fan of music films, and the ones I love the most are the ones that feel like they break the chronological, archive-heavy mold. Films like Sam Jones’ Wilco documentary, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. Have you watched it? 
Danny Cohen: Courtney gave me this [holds up the musician’s copy of the DVD] and she’s like, ‘Hey, I really like this doco, you should watch it.’ And I was like, ‘Totally.’ Still haven’t! I didn’t want to watch too many films going into it because knowing I haven’t really explored the documentary genre a lot, I’d probably just be like, ‘Oh, that’s good, that’s good, that’s good.’ And consciously or unconsciously, it would just get all filtered back into the film and then I’d be like, ‘Oh, I’ve just made that film, but with Courtney.’ Now I can watch it. 

Well, congratulations on making your first feature film after a storied career in music videos and commercials. How does that feel?
It feels great. It feels wonderful. It’s just something I didn’t expect to happen. I never thought I’d make a documentary. But I was like, ‘How could I not do this, travel the world documenting a friend’s journey,’ you know? ‘I kind of have to.’ But I didn’t know how to do it or what the story was going to be or any of that sort of stuff. 

Small poppies: Creative friends Courtney Barnett and Danny Cohen.  — Photographer… Bri Hammond
Small poppies: Creative friends Courtney Barnett and Danny Cohen.  Photographer… Bri Hammond

Anonymous Club begins with one device, which is, ‘Well if you can’t talk to the camera, then talk to me through audio diaries’. It ends with someone who’s super comfortable now in expressing herself in interviews. Talk me through your process, how you would stop and check in on what was happening and figure out where to go next. 
I kept having these ideas when we were thinking of what the format of the documentary would be, and all of them kind of led to Courtney being interviewed or sitting in front of the camera. I’ve done a bunch of music videos with Courtney and I just know what she’s like in front of the camera, which is fine because I’d be the same, probably. A lot of people aren’t really that well-spoken in those environments, when it’s not their natural form. The contrast between interview-Courtney and stage-Courtney is just crazy.

And I also thought, if I then start interviewing other people and it becomes a sort of talking heads thing, well, of course everyone’s going to say good things about Courtney. Like, ‘Courtney was not famous and now she is famous’, ‘I remember when she was playing pubs’, ‘Oh yeah, me too. I knew she had it in her.’ I thought ‘I don’t want to look back at her career too much. Let’s just start where we are now and see what happens.’ 

And so the idea of the Dictaphone came about. I just gave it to her with the idea of, ‘Just say whatever’s on your mind whenever you’ve got a second. It doesn’t have to be deep, it doesn’t have to be anything. Just pretend like you’re talking to me on the phone.’ So, she just started it.

I got the first batch back, and there’d be stuff that, as a friend, I’d just be like, ‘I didn’t know you were going through this,’ or, ‘I didn’t know you felt like this way before you went on stage because all I see is just you warming up, a bit nervous. But then you go on stage and you fucking rip it and everyone’s going nuts.’ I’m just like ‘where have you got the time for this self-doubt and worry?’ It just didn’t fit in at all. But then obviously if you listen to her lyrics, her whole story’s there anyway. 

Write a list of things to look forward to: Courtney takes a moment in yet another city to pen some lyrics. — Photographer… Danny Cohen
Write a list of things to look forward to: Courtney takes a moment in yet another city to pen some lyrics. Photographer… Danny Cohen

So, you have Courtney’s thoughts, and you are following her on a world tour and into recording sessions—but you’re shooting on film, so you’re not looking at the footage straight away. 
No, it sucks! But it’s exciting, it’s really exciting. You kind of forget what you’ve shot and you forget where you’ve been and what country and then you look back and you’re like, ‘Ah, that’s why I lugged film around!’ It’s just so immersive, it’s so beautiful. 

My editor [Ben Hall] and I watched this film, Tokyo-Ga, the Wim Wenders film retracing [Yasujirō] Ozu in Japan, which is a really beautiful sentiment. It’s so Wim Wenders and just so slow. Just let it wash over you and kind of find things in the scene. So we realized maybe a year in that the way I’d been shooting was not the way I wanted the film to feel. I was so petrified of wasting money on film, I’d be shooting such short takes. We’re like, ‘If you don’t start doing longer takes and backing yourself in those situations where you actually need to wait a little bit, wait for a moment to happen…’

Observe, right? Just be.
Yes. But at a dollar a second?! You just have to get over that. And so it turned from, ‘Oh, I need to compress the whole day and self-edit while I shoot into one or two rolls,’ to, ‘I’m just going to sit around, hunt for that feeling of a moment.’ 

At that same time I was like, ‘I need to start talking to Courtney on camera’. I think the Dictaphone device is a great way to get in there but I don’t know if it’s sustainable for 90 minutes. So I had to start asking her questions, which, I was just as uncomfortable as she was! 

Out of the woodwork: Anonymous Club is both a portrait and a self-portrait of Courtney Barnett.  — Photographer… Danny Cohen
Out of the woodwork: Anonymous Club is both a portrait and a self-portrait of Courtney Barnett.  Photographer… Danny Cohen

Two themes I noticed: firstly, how alone she is at the start and how ‘with the gang’ she is by the end. And possibly related to that is: it’s really hard to tell the story of mental health on screen. Mental health is often portrayed in film as this noisy, public struggle involving violence and incarceration. But for most of us, it’s not, and I think this is one of the most beautiful portrayals of the journey of mental health over a number of years. 
Thank you.

JC wrote on Letterboxd, ‘Her transparency about her various anxieties was refreshing.’ You’ve said you didn’t know a lot of what Courtney was going through, so can you talk about the story you have created with the material you collected and how that might help other people to understand the journey of one’s relationship with their mental health?
You know, mental health is such a broad spectrum. It’s not, as you were saying, at one extreme end—there’s obviously so many variations of it. The game of being an artist is battling self-doubt and imposter syndrome, two steps forward, one step back, all that sort of stuff. It’s just... there. 

But it was only in the edit ... Like, I kind of knew. I knew as I was checking with the Dictaphone what the story was that was unfolding. It was whether or not I felt comfortable telling that story and how deep I could go with it. Not that Courtney would stop me, but I think just from, like, being a good person, it was like ‘how deep do we go?’ Some of the Dictaphone entries obviously are quite dark and difficult to listen to. It’s just like, ‘Oh boy’.

I knew the rough story because I’d seen Courtney’s, I don't want to call it transformation, but I’d seen Courtney’s journey just from hanging out around her. You can hear it in the record too. In the second record she’s angry, depressed, confused. But then you listen to her new record and it’s just so bright and so buoyant and light and full of love. And you’re like, ‘Well yeah, something happened here.’ Like, there is a journey. 

Splendor: Courtney backstage with Letterboxd member Vagabon, who talked on our podcast about recording with Barnett.
Splendor: Courtney backstage with Letterboxd member Vagabon, who talked on our podcast about recording with Barnett.

So the art sort of gives you permission.
Maybe, yeah. I think so. I was like, ‘You know, it’s filling in the gaps between those two albums.’ I kind of like that now it’s a piece of history. I mean, it still is my perspective, it’s not necessarily Courtney’s perspective because I’ve chosen how to tell the story. But yeah, I think it’s nice, this idea of time between two records. 

Charlie writes on Letterboxd that Anonymous Club ‘reinvigorated my want to create.’ In what ways did being with Courtney on the road and observing her artistic process and her struggles reinvigorate your own creativity?
I guess the whole process definitely did. Because there’s so much doubt of, ‘What is the story? What am I doing? What did I film today? I filmed Courtney in a green room again, what is this? What will I use this for in the film? I’ve just wasted—’

The privilege of being in a green room should never be underestimated.
Totally. I know. But you know, it’s every night, for years. You really have to set the film up the right way to be able to sit in those moments and enjoy watching this person stand on the spot. 

Going into the film, something that Courtney and I really bonded on is we both are really into hearing about others’ creative practices and how they go about things similar to you. It’s like a signpost for artists or something.

Help your self: Director Danny Cohen with the film camera he took around the world.
Help your self: Director Danny Cohen with the film camera he took around the world.

What is your favorite Courtney Barnett song? 
It’s a Courtney song with Kurt [Vile], Blue Cheese. Before I’d done any music videos for Courtney, we’d just done maybe one photo, and then she was like, ‘Oh, I got this thing with Kurt coming up, maybe you should just come, hang out and take some photos in the studio.’ They’re recording Blue Cheese and you could just feel this energy in the room like, ‘Oh now let’s do it again. We can do it better.’ But it wasn’t like, ‘That last one was shit.’ They’re like, ‘Fuck! We’re really cooking now.’ Just to be in amongst that sort of process and see it firsthand… I felt really lucky to have been given the opportunity. 

What is the film that made you want to be a filmmaker?
My first job was in a cinema. It sounds really whimsical, like, ‘Yeah, my first job was at a cinema. I was a ticket ripper. I worked my way up and I was a projectionist in my late teens, early 20s.’

Which cinema?
Classic Cinemas in Elsternwick. For a young person on a casual wage as a projectionist, it was tight. It was good. You could have friends up there and you got to watch films all the time. It was just a really special time, but I don’t know if that’s what made me want to… [interrupts himself] Jurassic Park

Jurassic Park?
Yeah. Because it is the first film I remember seeing and [it] obviously started some love affair.

What, in your opinion, is the most quotable Australian film of all time? 
My friends and I quote Animal Kingdom a lot, and I know that’s not why it was made, but I’m like, what better compliment is that? It’s like a Scorsese film where you just want to do all the characters. And I know [for director] David Michôd, that wasn’t the plan. But we quote all these characters and send each other GIFs from that film. That’s a job well done. Like, [your film has] entered a different world if you’re just trying to out-best each other’s Ben Mendelsohn impression.

Finally, could you tell me about the posters that have been sitting behind you this whole time? 
I’ve got a few. There’s The Last Movie here, the Dennis Hopper film, which is mad. Have you seen it?

A promotional poster for Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie (1971). 
A promotional poster for Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie (1971). 

No. It’s going straight on my watchlist.
It’s quite a journey. I’ve seen it a couple of times; I’m still just trying to make sense of it. It’s such a batshit crazy look at Hollywood and also the time, and I find him really fascinating. He’s a trailblazer but also just kind of real cocky at the same time. 

And then there’s all these crazy stories about editing it. He ran away with the film and wouldn’t give the rushes to anyone. And then he had Alejandro Jodorowsky come look at the film and it was just like this weird, cult thing. It’s fucking wild—and it’s the same camera that I shot [Anonymous Club] on he’s holding there. 

The other one’s a Polish Badlands poster. I realize I’ve got all these posters of violent, real violent films, and I hate violence in cinema. Like I hate it, hate it, hate it with a passion! [Laughs.] 


Anonymous Club’ is in select US cinemas now and opening in more theaters throughout August via Oscilloscope Laboratories. This interview has been edited for length and clarity, and the captions inspired by Courtney Barnett song titles.  

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