Making the Bands
Music and more at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls
BY MOLLY TEMPLETON
GIRLS ROCK!: Directed by Arne Johnson and Shane King. Produced by Arne Johnson. Cinematography, Shane King. Animation, Liz Canning. With Palace, Amelia, Misty and Laura, and the staff of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls. Shadow Distribution, 2008. PG. 90 minutes.
|Palace wants to rock you on|
The Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls is totally awesome. Since 2001, when the camp was founded, it’s given girls ages 8 to 18 a place to go hang out with other girls (and the women who lead the camp) and learn to write, play and perform music with their peers. During the week of camp, attendees also go to workshops in things like self-defense and zine creation, groups in which girls can discuss the things that worry them and lunchtime concerts featuring women musicians of all genres. The camp (which has since expanded to include an after-school program and more) is the rare thing that makes me almost wish I were still a teenager — or, less drastically, that at least that I could play an instrument and therefore be part of it.
For those of us who’ve always wondered just how it works, Girls Rock! is a fascinating peek inside the Portland warehouse where the summer camp sessions take place. But more importantly, it’s an introduction to the camp for parents and girls who may not have heard of it before or have been uncertain about wanting to participate. In that sense, Arne Johnson and Shane King’s well-intentioned documentary should be a success. Johnson and King follow four very different girls — 7-year-old Palace, a fashion-conscious singer; 8-year-old Amelia, a noise rocker whose muse is her dog, Pippi; 15-year-old Laura, who loves death metal and is also a vocalist; and 17-year-old Misty, who’s never seen a bass before but takes to the instrument quickly — as they navigate the complexities of a camp in which the campers form bands with girls they most likely just met. The goal is to write a song in five days and perform it at the end of camp showcase. The magical thing is that they all do it. It gets messy and complicated, and a few young egos get bruised, but it works.
The rock camp isn’t just about music; it’s also about creating an empowering place for girls to talk about and deal with the difficulties of being themselves, and it’s in the scenes where campers discuss the pressures they feel and the challenges facing girls and young women that the value of the camp is most obvious. To illustrate these difficulties and complexities, the film veers off from time to time into quirkily animated segments that provide depressing and vital information about the lives of teenage (and younger) girls — but that also seem spliced in from a different film. In fact, there are three films and stories here, weaving around each other but not overlapping as well as they should: the stories of the four campers; the story of the camp and the women who work at it, who all have striking insights and anecdotes about the necessity and purpose of their work; and the animated segments that offer statistics and snippets of oversimplified backstory.
But this is the sort of film in which you might choose, as I did, to overlook the flaws in favor of the purpose. The film — though its DIY look is perfectly appropriate and its soundtrack spectacular — needs a sharper focus and a stronger narrative thread to pull it all together. But frankly, it’s not the film that matters here so much as it is the heartbreaking, feisty, smart, troubled, savvy girls, and the possibility that they might inspire more girls to pick up guitars, to trek to Portland (or one of the other cities that now hosts a rock camp) and experience a place where nobody has to be perfect, mistakes can be made as loudly as you like and, when showtime comes around, absolutely everybody is a rock star. ew
Girls Rock! opens Friday, March 14, at the Bijou.