A couple of nights ago I was at the local premiere of Dirty Country, a hilarious documentary about Larry Pierce, a singer-songwriter who performs raunchy country music only the ill-informed would call misogynistic—his songs are so juvenile that you gotta believe Pierce is the only one being oppressed. Still, it was a reminder that the music business is largely a male-dominated one in which women are often relegated to the thankless role of groupie, backup singer, or video hoochie.
But what about girls who want to rock? The inspiring chick-power documentary Girls Rock!, which screened yesterday afternoon at the Ritz Theater as part of the Sound Unseen Film + Music Festival, argues that peers and pop culture are doing their damndest to groom more Britney Spears than Patti Smiths. But it also suggests that if you put an electric guitar in the hands of a troubled teenage girl, you’re building more than a budding musician; you’re chiseling away at the cultural flotsam that tells her she’s worthless.
Scheduled to open in theaters in March (nothing’s booked yet for our Landmark screens), the film follows campers at the famed Oregon-based Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls. Over the course of the five-day camp, girls as young as eight form bands, write and perform songs, work out their hostilities (at the world and each other), and learn that they’re not weird if they want to wail on a guitar or scream into a microphone—in fact, they’re cool. The camp was started by a female roadie who was tired of seeing the tough women rockers of the ‘90s being replaced by Hilary Duff–styled “performers” of girly pop who had never picked up a guitar, much less played one.
There are no Hilary Duffs at the five-day Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp, which, judging by the film’s four hand-picked protagonists, seems to attract more than its share of kids with baggage. On one end of the spectrum, there’s Misty, a teenager with drug-addicted parents who has spent time in and out of group homes and is now ridiculed by classmates for living with her grandparents. On the other, there’s Palace (above), a cherubic eight-year-old vocalist who eats up the camera but seems to have inherited her divorced yuppie mom’s preoccupation with her appearance. Amelia is the chatterbox guitarist who writes songs about her dog Pippi but can’t find any friends at school, while Laura is the perpetually smiling Korean adoptee from Oklahoma who loves death metal but admits she hates herself.
We don’t spend enough time with any of the girls to get a real sense of how much they’re transformed by the camp or even learn much more about them than the above descriptions suggest. Luckily, director Arne Johnson has chosen such winning subjects that it’s easy forget that the film is largely a collection of captured moments than a character-driven narrative.
Campers take self-defense lessons and talk about “body oppression,” but the film makes clear that the real work of building up these girls comes in teaching them not to tear down one another. Interviews and camp footage mingle with stylized animation that wisely adds some levity to all this self-esteem talk; unfortunately, these segments also introduce some suspect stats about the assault on girls—not an insignificant point when you consider the folks lined up to take shots at anything that argues that life is tougher for girls.
Spellbound and Mad Hot Ballroom are two other docs that followed a melting pot of talented kids readying for their big day on stage. Like these films, Girls Rock! is at its best simply observing kids being kids in all their unvarnished, pubescent hilarity—not reaching for the big message.
Women in Music Minnesota hosts its own rock camp for girls modeled after the one in the film. Visit wimmn.com or girlsrockandrollretreat.com for details.