Saturday, November 19, 2011

The New Disaster Movie: The Celebratory Documentary

I watched the PBS Fall Art Festival centring on Cleveland, Ohio last night (18 November 2011) because as a historian, social scientist, and cultural studies nerd interested in the history rock and roll I thought the documentary that was at the heart of Cleveland night, "Women Who Rock", might be interesting, educational, and insightful. It was definitely interesting but I am not sure it was particularly educational, save in a very simplistic and surfacy way, nor am I sure it was particularly insightful.

In an earlier blog I wrote that I thought that one of the failings of the PBS documentary series "Pioneers of Television" was its too celebratory tone about the medium of television and its practitioners and that this celebratory quality of the series undermined, at least in part, "Pioneers" potential for educating viewers about television genres. The same problem and others undermined the PBS "Women Who Rock" as well.

As is sometimes the case with PBS documentaries and documentary series "Women Who Rock", like the PBS Fall Arts Festival programmes in general up to this point, has been more celebratory than analytical and critical. Granted the Fall Arts Festival is meant to celebrate a contemporary American art scene under threat from decreasing funding and an animosity toward funding for the arts these days--funding was perhaps contingent on celebration and PBS's Fall Art Festival has celebrated arts scenes in Minneapolis, Seattle, the Blue Ridge Mountains, and Cleveland. And while I am not opposed to celebration I also like to see, at least in documentaries, a more critical appreciation of their subject. I didn't find much in the way of a critical sensibility in "Women Who Rock". It was largely just a you go girl celebration.

The celebratory nature of "Women Who Rock" was not the only problem with the documentary. As is often the case with one hour documentaries, 55 minutes or so was simply not enough time to really explore the important role women have played in rock even before there was "rock". The programme's history of women and rock, as a result, was sketchy and perfunctory. If it was meant to be a documentary history of American women in rock then where were the Runaways? Where was Joan Jett and why was she absent save for the playing of her song "I Love Rock and Roll" in the background as the documentary celebrated a summer rock camp for young women? Where was another one of those early hard rockers Pat Benatar? Where were the Bangles, the Go-Gos, and the Donnas?

Another problem with "Women Who Rock" was its focus. By and large the focus of the documentary was on American women who rock, which makes sense given that "Women Who Rock" was part of Cleveland night. However, the occasional Canadian woman (Joni Mitchell), Icelandic woman (Bjork), and British women (P.J. Harvey and Adele) were thrown into the mix for some reason during the documentaries 55 minutes raising the question that if this documentary was intended to be an international history of women in rock.

If the focus of "Women Who Rock" was intended to be international or Anglo-North American then where were Dusty Springfield? Where was Petulia Clark? Where were those British women who fronted and wrote songs for punk bands in 1970s and 1980s Britain, women like Poly Styrene, the front woman of X-Ray Spex who turned punk almost singlehandedly in the direction of a critique of consumer culture, Siouxie Sue, front woman of Siouxie and the Banshees who brought a filmic sensibility to punk, and the all female punk band The Slits? As front women for their bands and as primary songwriters Polystyrene and Siouxie Sue opened up roles for women in rock, transformative roles for women in rock, that had not, for the most part, been available to women before the late 1970s, the pouty Leslie "You Don't Own Me" Gore from New Jersey and the tough and streetwise Shangri-las (Remember (Walking in the Sand" and "Leader of the Pack") from Queens both of whom made no appearance in "Women Who Rock", aside. Was an acknowledgment of the fact that women like Polystyrene and Siouxie Sue had an immense influence on American female punkers like Kathleen Hanna of Olympia, Washington's seminal riot grrrl punk band Bikini Kill, enough of an acknowledgment given the significance of their impact on women who rock?.

In the end I found "Women Who Rock" interesting if fatally flawed even if its intent was to focus exclusively on the American female rockers scene. That said, and this is a big caveat, I appreciated and appreciate PBS's attempt to do a history of women in rock because very few other television networks are doing what "Women in Rock" and PBS's Fall Arts Festival are doing or trying to do. So in spite of all their flaws PBS's "Women Who Rock" and Fall Arts Festival deserve our appreciation despite all their warts. Keep thinking outside the stale over the air TV box PBS because despite all of your worthy failures you are still the cherry bomb PBS.

Oh before I forget, the reason PBS put "Women Who Rock" on PBS during Cleveland arts night is because Cleveland is the home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

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