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Girls Rocks!

Girls Rock! (2007) running time: 90 minutes; unrated IMDB site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1028539/ Official Site: http://www.girlsrockmovie.com/ Directed by: Arne Johnson, Shane King Review Copyright Deesha Philyaw, 2008

A few months ago, I viewed the trailer for Girls Rock!, a documentary which chronicles a 5-day-long Rock 'n Roll Camp for Girls in Portland, Oregon. At the camp, the girls form bands, write music, and ultimately perform for a crowd of 750. The clip showed pre-teen, guitar-wielding girls in all their sneering, screaming, and angsty-glory. The Seattle Times' review of the film ("Bring your daughters") read my mind. This film was a must-see for my girls, ages 4 ½ and 9 ½. So, when I found out that the film's limited release included Pittsburgh, we were there.

If Rock 'n Roll Camp for Girls had a mascot, she would be called The Anti-Britney. The film presents scantily clad imagery of Ms. Spears circa 2000 as the antithesis to punk rockers like Bikini Kill and alt-rock musicians such as Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth who exemplified real '90s Girl Power. Forget what you heard about that spicy quintet from the other side of the pond. The camp was founded nearly a decade ago in the spirit of Bikini Kill, Kim Gordon, and others, as a way to empower girls and reclaim girl culture from the fluffy, sexualized, unhealthy forces which currently have a stranglehold on it.

Girls Rock! follows 100 campers as they form 24 bands and write songs in preparation for a concert. On the first day, the girls are asked to pick a musical genre and find band mates. As the girls mill uncomfortably around a large room considering signs proclaiming "Funk", "Punk", "Hip Hop" and other genres, anyone who has ever wandered around the cafeteria on the first day of school clutching a plastic tray and looking for a familiar or friendly face will relate. Fifteen-year-old vocalist Laura, one of the four girls the documentary focuses on, searches for fellow death metal enthusiasts and worries that she won't find any (she does). A hip-hop band struggles to choose a name--especially after they discover that their sound isn't actually hip-hop.

In addition to Laura, the film has three other primary subjects: Seventeen-year-old Misty is currently living in a group home after spending 10 months in a lockdown facility. She has never even seen her chosen instrument, the bass, before. Amelia, an eight-year-old guitarist, has only one friend at school, is writing a 14-song cycle about her dog, Pippi, and doesn't care too much about melody--to the chagrin of her band mates. High-octave vocalist Palace is a seven-year-old budding fashionista whose obsession with her looks worries her mom (who admits to her own image issues). She is the camp's resident diva and has about as many comedic moments as she does unruly ones. Palace gives us this memorable lyric: San Francisco sucks sometimes / I don't want to go there again with my mom on her business trip

Over the course of five days, we witness girls literally and figurative finding their voices, practicing instruments (some playing for the very first time), and learning to get along. In addition to group practices and one-on-one sessions with teachers (women only), the girls learn about the history of rock 'n roll and take classes in self-defense. During one lunch break, they are treated to performance by a female metal band, complete with a head-banging, hair-swinging kick-ass lead vocalist.

The film also features interviews with campers at camp and at home, family members, and camp staff (including indie rocker Beth Ditto, whom I recognized from her frequent appearances on one of my favorite celebrity gossip blogs). Through these interviews, the heavy load girls carry today is laid bare. From random acts of unkindness by mean girls to drug-addicted parents to struggles with body image and the relentless quest to fit in--today's girls have it rough. Camp staffers can relate, because after all, such problems aren't new. Clearly, the camp is a labor of love for the counselors, music teachers, and "camp moms", many of whom play in bands themselves, all of whom remember the crippling self-consciousness, fear, and danger (sexual assault and harassment) that can come with growing up girl.

Interspersed throughout the film are animated segments highlighting disturbing statistics about the current state of girlhood. For example: While women represent only 22% of performers in music videos, they are 5 times more likely than men to be dressed in revealing clothing in videos. In 1970, the average age for girls to start dieting was 14; in 1990, it was 8. Girls are the only group to begin school with a testing advantage and leave with a disadvantage. The percent of girls who say, "I'm happy", drops from 60 to 29 percent between the ages of 9 and 15. Girls are twice as likely as boys to say a body part is their best feature (boys are more likely to cite their talents). The fashion and beauty industries makes $43 billion annually off teen girls alone. These stats are juxtaposed against retro footage of women and girls from the 50s, 60s, and 70s, as well as present-day imagery.

As the mother of girls, I enjoyed and appreciated this film. It put the issues on the table without being ham-fisted or overly sentimental. There were no After School Special Moments. This film was real, certainly more real (and less toxic) than so-called Reality TV. None of the girls were edited to be caricatures, and their petty squabbles weren't played up for entertainment. The camp was designed to foster congeniality and community-building, and the film honors that.

The movie and the camp's finale, the concert, did not disappoint. The girls were beautiful and wild and most of all, they had fun. The highlight of the concert for me was when one little darling sang: "Bush is an idiot…he won't sign the Kyoto treaty…"

By film's end, Laura, who had declared early on that she hates herself, realizes that "I'm amazing." And yet Girls Rock! offers up neither happily ever after nor pat answers. The girls' angst is palpable and their vulnerability is heart-breaking. I realized, as I watched, that I am at the age now where I am less inclined to ache at the memory of my own teen awkwardness, and more inclined to ache for my daughters for whom adolescence is just around the corner.

I left Girls Rock! wanting my girls to go to Rock 'n Roll Camp (there are now ten such camps worldwide with even more in the works). My oldest, who really liked the film, said she'd think about it. The youngest pouted because I wouldn't buy more popcorn; no word yet on her thoughts about the movie or the Camp, but she did laugh out loud at words like "suck" and "idiot." So I think it's safe to give this one a unanimous family thumbs up.

Black Factor

Five minutes into the film, I get this whisper from my oldest daughter: "Mommy, I notice there aren't any black girls." She's almost right. There are only a few black girls at the camp. But, as my daughter notes, "They aren't being interviewed like the other girls." The campers include some black, Latina, Asian, and biracial girls, but of the four girls who are the primary subjects of the film, only Korean-born Laura is not white (her adoptive parents are white). At one point, she talks about being called a Twinkie (yellow on the outside, white on the inside). I suspect the filmmakers were purposeful about not focusing on four white girls, however the inclusion of Laura did not come across as tokenism. When Laura shared her personal fears and insecurities, she could have been speaking for any of her contemporaries, regardless of race. Also, she could just as easily have been chosen because of her candor, eloquence, and bubbly personality.

File Under: The World May Never Know

"Mom, if the camp is for girls ages 8-18, how come Palace is there? She's only 7." Good question, DaughterMine! My guess is that the camp organizers realized that dear Palace was 7 going on 27 and made an exception for her.


Here's what the filmmakers, Arne Johnson and Shane King, both natives of Portland, have to say about being two guys making a film about empowering girls:

The camp, understandably, was suspicious and wary. We had to do quite a bit of persuading that we weren’t trying to turn the camp into American Idol. And in the process of persuading, we did a lot of listening. And discovered that the camp was about so much more than just kids with guitars. We heard about transformations, girls who looked to the camp as a lifeboat in the swirling seas of conformity pressure and bands of twelve year old girls that by the mere act of playing made grown men cry. And in that process, we forgot that we were just men, and started learning how to be better human beings. And in a strange twist, we started to see the fact that we were men making the film not as a hindrance, but as a strength. The film would almost be the charting of our experience (though we never appear in the film, of course) of having our eyes opened, and we hope that perhaps that urgency, that sense of sad but also inspiring discovery, will transmit itself through the film.

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