Directed by Amy J. Berg, Phoenix Rising is a two-part documentary film that follows actress Evan Rachel Wood in her activism over domestic abuse as it play into her own experiences during her own tumultuous relationship in the late 2000s with shock-rocker Marilyn Manson. The film explores the woman’s life as a child actress and a teen star as well as her relationship with Manson that was considered shocking to the public as she was 18 and he was in his late 30s but also the things in that relationship that made her an abuse victim and later an activist. The result is an engrossing yet eerie film from Amy J. Berg.
In 2006, actress Evan Rachel Wood met shock rocker Marilyn Manson at a party at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood, California as it marked the beginning of a tumultuous, chaotic, and abusive relationship that ended in 2011 but left Wood with scars and PTSD as she tried to reclaim her life and acting career. Nearly a decade since the end of the relationship that saw her acting career going on an upswing through films like The Ides of March, Kajillionaire, and the TV show Westworld while raising a young son from her relationship with British actor Jamie Bell. There were still questions about her relationship with Manson as she and activist/artist Illma Gore tried to create a bill known as the Phoenix Act in the wake of the #MeToo movement to protect domestic abuse victims and extended the statute of limitations in California. It was then that Wood learned that she wasn’t the only person who had been abused by Manson as other women including Game of Thrones actress Esme Bianco were among those who had been abused by the shock rocker.
Split into two parts, the film chronicles Wood’s life and career as it intercuts with her and Gore trying to create the Phoenix Act bill through the many journals and evidence Wood had gathered before and during her time with Manson. Among those also interviewed in the film are Wood’s parents David and Sara as well as her older brother Ira and her stepmother Ashley Wood as well as a few of the women who had relationships with Manson and were abused by him along with a couple of former assistants of Manson who witnessed the abuse but were kept quiet for years by Manson. Yet, the film has Amy J. Berg follow Wood in the course of nearly 2 years where she and Gore are trying to create this bill and also gather up evidence of the abuse Wood had suffered as they would keep it quiet during the pandemic.
The film is shot largely in 2020 and 2021 during the pandemic where Wood and Gore gather all of Wood’s personal journals, photos, and other things relating to her relationship with Manson in the hope that authorities would look into all of this and create a serious case. Notably in extending the statute of limitations for victims from 1-3 years to something much bigger in the hopes that domestic violence abuse victims would be given more protection. The film would intercut not just Wood and Gore’s work into creating this bill with Wood being at home to raise her son (whose face is never shown on camera while his face is blurred when he’s on camera) but also in Wood telling her own life story and how she met Manson and the tumultuous relationship they were in. The first part that features these surreal animation bits created by Angelique Georges that depicts Wood as Alice of Alice in Wonderland as this young girl who is confused and then corrupted by Manson. It play into Wood’s own growing pains as her parents split up when she was 9 where she went with her mother to Los Angeles while her brother Ira stayed with their father as she didn’t speak to her dad for almost a decade.
While Wood would become successful and gain serious acting award nominations for her performance in the 2003 film Thirteen, it also had her typecast as troubled young girls in the films she would do despite some of the critical praise she gets. For a young woman who was born and raised in North Carolina for much of her early life and being homeschooled, Wood was someone who had a lot of social anxieties while was freaked out by the idea of sex as there is a humorous anecdote about how she discovered sex by finding a porno magazine as she had boyfriends between 2003 and 2006 but she was still shy and awkward. Then she met Manson while she was in a relationship with British actor Jamie Bell and Manson was then-married to burlesque performer/adult model Dita von Teese. Wood admitted back then that she wasn’t a fan of his music but was aware of him nor was she attracted to him physically but found him intriguing. Even as he claimed to be a fan of her work and wanted to get involved in a project about Lewis Carroll called Phantasmagoria with Wood starring and being credited as a co-writer.
It was then that Manson did things such as love-bombs and all sorts of things where he wouldn’t just break Wood’s relationship with Bell but also charm her and thus their relationship became public in early 2007 much to the shock of those close to Wood including friends and family. Notably as Manson told Wood to look into her business dealings and such as he helped drive a wedge between Wood and her mother Sara who was also her manager though a lot of Manson’s claims were untrue. The relationship started off innocently but things changed following the shoot for the music video Heart-Shaped Glasses from his sixth studio album Eat Me, Drink Me is when things went bad as Wood was given absinthe that was spiked with something as she was in an intoxicated state and ended up doing an un-simulated sex scene without her consent as it lead the relationship to take a dark turn where she would join him on tour and be treated miserably as even some of Manson’s personal assistants and roadies were forced to lock her into a room out of fear for their own safety.
The film’s second part chronicles more of Wood’s relationship with Manson that was an on-again, off-again relationship that included a lot of verbal, physical, and mental abuse where the only breaks Wood had was when she was working on a film such as The Wrestler which is a film Wood is proud of. Unfortunately, it didn’t ease things as the relationship became toxic where Wood witnessed Manson’s own fascination with Nazism as well as saying a lot of racial and prejudice things towards African-Americans and Jews where is at times forced to say the N word and is troubled by his anti-Semitism since she is Jewish. Despite a brief period where she returned to North Carolina where she was with her father and step-mother Ashley, she returned to Manson in a way to defuse whatever destructive behavior he had towards himself only for things to get worse. The final straw came following the moment she was working on Mildred Pierce where she was pregnant during the film as she ended up getting an abortion as he treated her coldly and told her to make dinner when she needed to rest.
The second part also has Wood talking about her experience with other former girlfriends of Manson plus two of his former personal assistants who witnessed his abuse as one of them had befriended Wood in 2007 on tour as he felt guilty of having to do things for Manson. Many of them share the stories of the abuse they suffered but also the pattern of behavior and abuse he had where it becomes clear that they’re not alone that motivated Wood to work more on the Phoenix Act. On September 11, 2020, Manson would release his 11th studio album We are Chaos where questions towards Manson about his past relationship with Wood lead to Manson storming off interviews. It was when many begin to speculate about the identity of Wood’s abuser following her own testimonies including one at Congress in 2018 where Manson is a suspect leading to Wood receiving death threats from his fans. The threats forced Wood to leave Los Angeles with her son and their dog Tommy to the South where she is close by her family including her father, stepmother, and brother Ira who is often at the house playing with his nephew. Gore would stay in Los Angeles to work on the Phoenix Act as she would talk to Wood who would be at her home.
Berg’s direction doesn’t just go into some of the detail into Wood’s journals and recollections but also though excerpts from a 2017 audiobook version of Manson’s 1998 memoir The Long Hard Road Out of Hell which was a bestseller at the time despite the fact that a lot of the things in the book have been embellished, exaggerated, and filled with half-truths as Wood felt there are things there that play into Manson’s own psyche. Even as there’s also clips from some of Manson’s tour videos including some unreleased short films he made that depicted graphic acts of violence including a few that Wood was in from Manson’s own website. There’s even an excerpt of Manson in an episode of Dinner for Five hosted by Jon Favreau where Manson and comedian Andy Dick talked about a short film with Daryl Hannah where both Manson and Dick seem to laugh about Manson’s short films and the women in the film with Hannah feeling uncomfortable. With the aid of cinematographers Jenna Rosher and Curren Sheldon, Berg keeps many of the interviews as well as some of Wood’s own time at home in a straightforward manner while also knowing when to step back. Still, she was given unprecedented access to allow Wood to display her vulnerabilities as she still gets emotional about her experiences. Even as that relationship after it ended still traumatized her and why it lead to her relationship with Jamie Bell following her time with Manson to not work out.
Editors Miranda Yousef and Veronica Pinkham help gather not just some of Wood’s own home videos of her time with her family when she was young but also in some of the home videos she had during her time with Manson as it help bring a lot of weight into a lot of the things that she went through as she had to fake things for the public. Even as she was being slandered by celebrity gossipers and assholes like Perez Hilton who slut-shamed her and said things that are just obscene. Sound designer Mike James Gallagher and sound recordist Ashley Maria also do work in not just capturing many of the natural sounds in the shoot but also in some of the audio excerpts including some of the home videos of Wood’s time with Manson. The film’s music by Aska Mitsumiya is largely an ambient score as it play into the drama and many of the traumatic events that Wood went through.
Phoenix Rising is an incredible film from Amy J. Berg. Not only does it explore a woman recounting her experience in being abused but also trying to survive and overcome it while also sharing stories with those who endured the same experience of abuse. While it is not an easy film to watch in due to the graphic detail into the severity of the abuse Evan Rachel Wood endured in that relationship but also in the fact that she managed to overcome it and eventually out him in the hope that he is held accountable and that abuse victims can be protected through this bill in the hope that it becomes law. In the end, Phoenix Rising is a phenomenal film Amy J. Berg.
Amy J. Berg Films: (Deliver Us from Evil (2006 film)) – West of Memphis - (An Open Secret) – (Every Secret Thing) – (Prophet’s Prey) – (Janis: Little Girl Blue) – (The Case Against Adrian Syed)
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