Christopher Frierson on Carrying the Weight of the World on His Shoulders with “DMX: Don’t Try to Understand”

“I’m going to be amped and I can’t do nothin’ about it,” Earl “DMX” Simmons says, urging his manager Pat Gallo to resist the temptation of turning on the car radio as they head home to New York in “DMX: Don’t Try to Understand,” minutes removed from being released from a West Virginia prison. The hip-hop artist with the unforgettably gravelly growl can be seen in rare form after serving a 12-month stretch for tax evasion, ready to get on the road in an even greater way as there are plans afoot for a 20th anniversary tour for his landmark album “It’s Dark and Hell is Hot,” but for now he’s just excited to get back to Yonkers with a bundle of pent-up energy from having little to do for a year besides write, meditate and read a few “Danielle Steel joints.”

Just sitting to the left of him in the SUV was Christopher Frierson, who could know from the second he stepped in the car he was in for the ride of a lifetime as he followed DMX for a year, which sadly ended up being his next to last on earth with the rapper passing away this past April. What the director captured, however, somehow speaks volumes of the man at the same level he could raise the roof of any club he was in, able to turn any frustration and anger he had into kinetic energy in the recording studio and on stage. In the film, the then-49-year-old can be seen passing those lessons on to those raised in the same community he was, having come up the hard way, and attempting to make time for all those in his own family, with six children and ongoing ties to his ex-wife Tashera, to whom he was married for 11 years, and Desiree Lindstrom, his fiancee and mother to his youngest son Exodus.

Able to contradict himself even within the span of sentences, the restless Simmons gets a loving portrait that lays it all out from his deep religious conviction to delighting in profane expression and a gruff exterior that will often hide a tender heart as he travels from New York to Detroit to Indio. Whether he’s shooting pool at his favorite neighborhood bar Maxwell’s in Yonkers or walking up the mountain to perform Sunday Service with Kanye West at Coachella, his humility is striking as well as his mercurial nature, both irritable and clearly at peace with whatever chaos can surround him and as someone who never lost his fire, in spite of an addiction to drugs that he battled until his death and the often unforgiving nature of the music industry, Simmons is remembered with his flame continuing to burn brightly, either in his warmth towards so many in his life or his defiance towards a world trying to pin him down.

Shortly before the film’s premiere as part of the Music Box series of documentaries on HBO, Frierson spoke about why he was far less interested in Simmons the musician than the person, connecting a wild family tree and having to carry on filming when his subject went missing on him for a time.

How did this come about?

I pitched it at Mass Appeal where I was working at the time and Earl got locked up for the tax thing for a year and I had met Pat [Gallo, his manager] right after he got locked up and we kicked it. I think we both understood one another and  my motivations for wanting to make a film. In 2018, we were trying to get into the jail or see if we could start filming, and it just didn’t work out because of wardens and feds. But eventually, we hatched a plan where I got a little bit of money from Mass Appeal and grabbed two guys who worked in the office who were friends of mine and we drove down to West Virginia to coordinate with Pat and met Earl outside the jail, so that scene when he comes out, like “Heyyyyy…” [in DMX growl], that’s the first time I met him.

We hopped into a caravan of Suburbans, and I was with Earl and over the next two-and-a-half days [as] we drove up to New York City and during that period of time, hanging with him, and seeing how he moved amongst the people that cared about him most, [this] slowly revealed itself to be the thing that I wanted it to be.

At DOC NYC, you mentioned there was actually a bit of a “no music” mantra, or that was never going to be the focus. How did that shape this?

From the start, I didn’t want to make a “music documentary,” not shading on any music, but I wanted to as much as I could do a portrait of a human being where music is his job, and everything about who he is spills through the music, but keeping that separate from the focus of the film is one of the things that I think he appreciated. During that entire year, I don’t think I asked him anything about hip-hop or rap or things of that nature. That wasn’t some Lars von Trier Dogme shit – I just wanted the focus to stay more on him as much as humanly possible.

And there were people who were like, “When are you going to get the interview with Eve?” or with this person or that person and I didn’t want to do any sit-down interviews at all, because the beauty of Earl is he tells his own story, and his story has been told by other people so many times that I felt like it was antithetical to what I was trying to do. He’s so charismatic and dynamic and flawed and hilarious and kind and angry and spiritual, all at once that as we moved throughout the year, it was like we didn’t need to do this other stuff. The story is here. People will get more out of it from his mouth, from his actions, his experiences than someone talking about something that happened eight years ago.

I may be reading way too much into this, but you shoot in a variety of video formats that actually gives the aesthetic a similar personality as you’re describing for DMX. Was that actually by design or necessity?

Dude, we had so much more in there, but I’m going to be 100. Some of it was just because I liked the way certain things look, but then in the edit process, we weren’t going to use footage if it was unnecessary. Some things fit being on mini DV for whatever reason, like the mood and the vibe of the situation, and from the on-set, we were like, “We’ll bring this stuff, we’ll shoot on film, we’ll shoot with these shitty little cameras and we’ll see if it’s worth it,” and I think there’s little moments that what started off as the ability to have everything, we found appropriate places to implement that sort of footage.

It creates this natural blend between the archival footage and the present day as well, and you have some remarkable stuff in there like this clip where he’s with Flavor Flav, presumably near the start of his career, talking about his mother. Where did that come from?

It was a goldmine. A one point, we were going to use a lot more of that, but it was great because it was a time and period where everything was really looking up and you can see how he reacts the same way now as he did back then and you get a little bit more context as to where he’s coming from. We got it from his cousin, who just had this footage that no one had seen and we combed through it and we found these really special moments that we thought helped propel the story.

At a certain point, DMX disappears on you through filming, which you confront directly in the movie. Did his unavailability require you to put this together in the different way than you had been thinking?

No, because that interview we were going to do, I didn’t necessarily think it was going to be really that big of a deal in the context of the film like if he did show up. What it did for us as filmmakers was [become] just yet another challenge of figuring out what was going on and then figuring out a way to communicate what I was feeling because I’m on the phone with Pat, and with his fiancee [Desiree], I’m on the phone with [Tashera, his ex-wife] and all these different people and there’s a lot of love, but there’s a lot of different parts going around and I’m concerned, [and our producers] Clark [Slater] and Sean [Gordon-Loebl’s] concerned and it’s a state of confusion. And in my own issues of substance abuse, I’ve isolated. I know that people have been confused about where I’m at, so we decided to use that [moment] with the phone calls, with us being concerned and hopefully at that point in the film, you’re invested in his well-being, so I wanted the audience to feel what we were feeling. That’s what it might feel like for a lot of people who have family members or close friends or loved ones who disappear and you know what they might be doing and you’re concerned about their welfare.

It’s done so beautifully, and it also illustrate what a unique family he’s created. Was that difficult to reflect, particularly the parallel between his youngest son Exodus and his eldest Xavier?

Like most of the things in the film, it revealed itself and I think that when you go into something like very open, it helps that the person is very unexpected, but when things fall in place since you’re behind the camera and you’ve talked to all the people involved, you have this view from above and you can see what’s happening, so you can see how the Xavier relationship relates to the Exodus relationship in that there’s acrimony here and a need for resolution, and possibly a goal to do things a different way with this [younger] one. And when you’re in the moment with those particular people, you don’t really have the ability to see that, but since we’re there watching everything, it’s like, “Oh alright, this is interesting. Maybe he’s there reacting this way because of this. Then you have conversations with Earl about it without pressing him, just so he’s aware of what you’re seeing. Like I’ve had conversations with him about record contracts and other things because I have that perspective of being able to see everything that’s happening.

Speaking of which, I felt one of the best pure filmmaking moments in this was that scene in the halls of Def Jam where there’s that inventory of what everybody’s being paid except him as you hear his voice, but look around the building and all the pictures on the walls. What was that like to construct?

He was playing with Exodus and I think he’s just going through motions. I think Earl’s life is a lot of cycles that sometimes didn’t pan out the right way, and going into it, he’d already been resigned to a certain extent that this isn’t the picture perfect record signing at the top of the Capitol Records building in L.A. and champagne. It’s more like, “What do I have to do, what do I have to do next [as part of this deal,” and then to be hit with all of these other things, it’s like “Let me get out of here. Let me go to Maxwell’s, let me go to a normal place, have Subway and be safe because this environment is not it,” but he has to do it.

You’ve said that DMX got to see a cut of this before he passed and I can’t imagine sitting on this over the summer as you have, but what’s it like getting it out there now?

Atlas held up the world, right? It feels like Atlas, throwing it down and everybody was happy. I was really pleased that weight was lifted because I think everybody who really loved Earl — this is just my thought — understood that warts and all needed to be included to do him justice, and it was great to see Exodus the other day at DOC NYC with the family and Desiree. So it feels stupendous, phenomenal – it feels great.

“DMX: Don’t Try and Understand” will air on HBO on November 25th at 8 pm and streaming on HBO Max thereafter.