The modern music documentary is an increasingly strange beast, a meticulously staged PR move dressed up as a searing exposé. Stars offer up their vulnerabilities – mental and physical health issues (Robbie Williams, Selena Gomez), addiction (Demi Lovato), the illnesses of loved ones (Ed Sheeran) – in exchange for a flattering portrait; but even that is no great sacrifice. In fact, their struggle is often the most flattering bit, a cultural currency that tends to attract sympathy and generate relatability. Sometimes, these films even qualify as acts of altruism, their subjects credited with busting taboos and raising awareness while the buzz of self-promotion is relegated to background noise.
Being Kae Tempest, an hour-long programme about the gifted and garlanded rapper, poet, playwright and author, initially looks like it will cling to this zeitgeisty template. We join Tempest on their latest tour – in support of their 2022 album The Line Is a Curve – and hear that the last time the 37-year-old hit the road, in 2019, they were in a very bad place indeed. Back then, the musician was experiencing panic attacks – on stage and off – and found it practically impossible to leave their dressing room. Even getting to the dressing room was a mission in itself: Tempest’s manager had to film the route from the venue’s entrance to give them the opportunity to mentally prepare for the journey.
These feelings weren’t the result of being an overworked or exploited artist, but the product of a more elemental unease. The documentary, which belongs to the BBC’s vaunted Arena strand, begins with some self-filmed footage of Tempest from 2020, in which they explain that they are changing their name (they originally went by Kate) and their pronouns (previously they were referred to as she/her). Between the two tours – the nightmarish 2019 jaunt and this one – Tempest publicly transitions into their new non-binary identity, undergoes hormone treatment and, later, top surgery, leaving them with “a calm I have never known”.
It’s a much deserved happy ending for Tempest – and the documentary turns out to be something of a victory lap: we witness a delighted and excited (and sometimes still slightly nervous) musician performing to their adoring fans, hanging out at home with their supportive girlfriend and walking their beloved (and furiously moulting) dog, Murphy. The storm in Tempest’s body and mind has receded, and they are ready to reflect on the past with hard-won humour. “That’s me, mate!” they exclaim, gesturing towards a photograph of a child with a mop of strawberry blond hair. “I was a fucking little boy!”
Tempest does briefly reflect on the gender dysphoria that has blighted their life – it was “devastating” to reach puberty and discover that womanhood was apparently non-negotiable, so the artist attempted to embrace it: growing their hair, getting a boyfriend, feeling profoundly uncomfortable all the time. Yet as their girlfriend, the actor Amie Francis, rightfully points out, Tempest doesn’t “owe the world a definition of who and what they are”. The makers of this respectfully noninvasive documentary are clearly on the same page, and reluctant to focus too hard on the rapper’s transition.
Instead, Being Kae Tempest’s main preoccupation is the day-to-day reality of their career: this is a portrait of the artist as a workaholic. We witness Tempest editing poems backstage at gigs, juggling play writing, novel writing, lyric writing and more. First, however, we are treated to a pacy potted history of their early trajectory (so pacy, in fact, that it neglects to mention their stint at the prestigious Brit School for performing arts in London), starting with a struggle to cadge the mic at battle rap nights and ending with Rick Rubin on the blower, inviting Tempest to Malibu, where a supportive Jay-Z listened in on their songwriting sessions.
It’s quite the story, but all this excitement is wrapped up within the first 15 minutes. The rest of the programme consists of snippets of Tempest’s live shows and music videos alongside a glacially paced and generally non-scintillating chronicle of the musician’s daily life. We see Tempest and producer Dan Carey – their “brain’s soulmate” – in the studio, amiably discussing piano figures. We watch Tempest prepare an omelette. There is a lot of footage of sound checks and car journeys. They play darts in their house, and look through old notebooks. At one point, we are subjected to a drawn-out sequence in which Tempest applies a windshield sticker incorrectly, which is precisely as riveting as it sounds.
While Tempest’s work can be extremely earnest (an occupational hazard of the spoken word poet), in person they are self-effacing and funny – and we witness enough encounters with fans to be confident that their devotees can ignore that old adage about never meeting your heroes. Yet watching a nice, well-adjusted person do stuff doesn’t really qualify as entertainment. That doubtless says something dark about the circus of public dysfunction we call celebrity but, for Tempest, the fact that this programme has turned out to be slightly dull is simply good news. The artist already has a multitude of strings to their bow – documentary-worthy hot mess doesn’t need to be one of them.
• Being Kae Tempest is on BBC Two and iPlayer now