It is 1982 in Stockholm, these girls are 13 years old, and they refuse to believe that punk is dead. What a great idea for a film.

30weare-image-articleLargeI haven’t seen it yet, of course (foreign/independent films take approximately a month to make it to my city from movie centers in New York and LA), but today’s rave NYT review is through the roof, so I’m going to do my best to turn We are the Best! into a new cult movie about female rockers. (One of their songs is called “Hate the Sport.”)

So put it on your lists, friends.

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After the horror that was Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, I began watching Prey for Rock & Roll thinking, this is going to suck big time, so scale back your expectations. Feminist Music Geek hated it; so will I. I was so wrong. Granted, it’s got plenty of head-scratching narrative jumps, tired clichés, and cringe-making moments; like all those in my Cult Marathon for Movies About Female Rockers this movie is no critical success. But if you ask me, this should rocket straight to cult movie status. God forbid that you watch this film hoping for a logical story or top-notch acting. Instead, watch against the grain and it’s really entertaining. What more need I say but that Gina Gershon is a goddess?

Jacki (Gershon) is a bisexual tattoo artist and lead singer/rhythm guitarist in a band with her friends: bassist Tracy (Drea De Matteo, i.e. Adriana of The Sopranos), drummer Sally (Shelly Cole), and lead guitarist Faith (Lori Petty, who I’ll always think of as Tank Girl). Becoming a female rocker, Jacki tells us in an opening voiceover, was like a twisted religious experience:

I was this dorky 13-yr-old from the Valley when I had my first “cool” experience. My boyfriend Johnny Miller had his dad drive us to to see Ike and Tina Turner at the Hollywood Bowl. Oh man. She scared the shit outta me. It was the most bad-assin’ I’d ever seen a woman do. Suddenly the idea of becoming a teacher or a nurse lost its appeal. Sorry, mom.

But after years of small-time, low-paying gigs, she’s starting to have doubts. She’s about to turn 40, her latest g-friend has just left her, and the band has yet to sign to a label.

But if this movie is ostensibly about a crisis of relevance, it’s really got two other goals. The first is a fairly shamefaced celebration of how sexy rock is, especially when it’s performed by Gershon, Petty, Cole, and Matteo. It’s almost as if it had been filmed by a horny, attention-deficit cinematographer — the camera is always working against the narrative by scanning Gershon’s heavily tattooed body, spending too much time watching Cole and Petty get it on in the bedroom, following Matteo when she’s sporting just a bra. When Shelly’s hunky brother Animal shows up — played by Marc Blucas, better known as Buffy‘s lapdog-like college boyfriend Riley Finn, notable for being extremely tall, hunky, and yet ineffective — the camera looks more at his body parts (tattoos, abs, mouth) than his whole person. It’s downright soft-core.

So why isn’t this objectionable sexploitation? Because the second real narrative here is about female power and self-determination. And I still believe that even after having seen the terrible plot twists (argh: rape & revenge among them). Again, don’t expect some kind of feminist wonderland in Prey For Rock & Roll, especially in the last 20 minutes or so; but on the whole I liked seeing a movie about aging rockers who actually play a lot of good songs and offer up a satisfyingly pissed-off rape protest song:

Every 6 minutes
Someone says “no”
Every 6 minutes
She gets ignored

It’s not what you’re wearing
Its not where you’ve been
The fact that they think so
Tells you somethin’ bout sin

Every 6 minutes
A woman cries
Because every 6 minutes
Her pleas are denied

No one’s asking for it
It’s no woman’s secret desire
The fact that they think so
Is a man-made liar

The passing of time
Brings you closer to me
Cause I’ve got love and justice
Keeps you free
I’ve got .38 special
Reasons at my side
Face the ultimate “no,” big boy
This time I’ll decide
If I had a bullet
For every six minutes
I know just where to put it

Am I being optimistic? Is this wholly the response of someone who had the lowest of expectations going in? I wouldn’t fight too hard if you wanted to say so. But honestly, I think this is one of those films that beg for viewers to disregard the film’s on-the-surface narrative and look instead at the more radical, messy elements underneath. (Pussyrock Fanzine agrees.) The dude doesn’t exactly get the girl: for all his abs, tattoos, and puppydog lusting for Jacki, Animal gets a grand total of one kiss. These adult women face adversity and get through it without much hand-wringing. And they kick ass onstage. What can I say? It shows what I want this kind of film to show — that performing rock gives women a different kind of power than they get from other aspects of their lives, and that we viewers respond to it differently too — we glean a kind of power from these performances as well. I’d probably watch it again tonight if it were on; and I can only hope that other films in this marathon meet that standard.

I’d hoped this early film about the fictional all-female band The Carrie Nations would prove the point I’m trying to make in my Cult Marathon for Movies About Female Rockers: that these films can’t help but have a feminist message. But Beyond the Valley of the Dolls has proven me wrong. This film is what might result if a crazy person decided to merge together a pre-1962 Playboy bunny party, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), and Austin Powers (1997) — making me set aside my feminist expectations. Should you watch this film? The short answer is no. But we all know that Feminéma is not given to short answers. Here’s the worst part: this movie has more in common with 2010 than the far more radical films of the early 80s.

The Carrie Nations (from L-R: Pet, Kelly, and Casey) can play a great rock song, but ultimately they’re all big hair, big eyes, and big breasts — and big on hopping into bed with whoever’s available. Created by the notorious breast-oriented director Russ Meyer — you know, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! — using the wordiest, weirdest script ever by Roger Ebert, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is a soft-core feature with a whole lot of women who just happen to like to taking their clothes off. (What, are you objecting? are you some kinda square?) I thought at first this would be one of those Small Town Girls Go To The Big City tale (Texas to L.A., to be precise); but the film’s too chaotic for that. On its 10th anniversary Ebert wrote that Meyer wanted it to “simultaneously be a satire, a serious melodrama, a rock musical, a comedy, a violent exploitation picture, a skin flick and a moralistic expose.” I’m not sure I understand the satire, nor did I see those things going on simultaneously, but I certainly see that it moves from one to the next in nonsensical progression right to the abruptly moralizing conclusion.

Remember the scene from Austin Powers in which Vanessa Kensington tries to bring him up to speed after being cryogenically frozen for 30 years? “You know, a lot’s changed since 1967,” she tells him. He responds, for a big laugh line:

“Well, as long as people are still having promiscuous sex with many anonymous partners without protection while at the same time experimenting with mind-expanding drugs in a consequence-free environment, I’ll be sound as a pound!”

No one could have captured more accurately the world of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls: it gleefully and subversively shows a Southern California that welcomes all manner of (interracial, gay, BDSM) sexual unions with no AIDS, no herpes, no worries. Except that sometimes there are dire consequences indeed: spurned lovers try to kill themselves or others, take too many pills, or spiral to madness. The movie’s schizophrenic view of sex — “everything’s okay, until it’s not!” — seems far too familiar in 2010, an era in which one can see anything, all the time on the internet and the same time schools adopt abstinence-only sex education. So what am I to do with this great song, “Find It,” which begins almost as soon as the film opens?

The disconnect between that singer’s angry voice and her low register (was this inspired by Janis?) and the obvious fact that it’s not really being sung be that Kewpie-doll, baby-voiced Kelly (Dolly Read) continues to leave me baffled. This song is the film’s one gesture to feminist power — and even this is undermined by the overly cutie-pie actors who mouthed the lyrics but can’t muster any of the urgency or the fury of the real thing.

Apologies, readers: the campy pleasure of this film was mostly lost on me. Its anxious undermining of female sexual power was far too familiar to our 2010 world than seems funny; its eagerness to kill off the lesbians, transform the tranny into a demon, and celebrate the Carrie Nations’ ridiculous manager, Harris — himself an unholy mix of Greg Brady and Benedict Cumberbatch (the BBC’s new Sherlock) — all of this didn’t seem funny anymore. I realize I’d feel different if I were in a raucous theater full of howling viewers rather than in my own living room, waiting for my sweetie to get home from work. All of this is a reminder that The Runaways (2010)’s lack of feminist ire shouldn’t have been such a surprise to me when I saw it last year. For that, dear readers, you’ll have to go back to Times Square (1980).

Once upon a time a director named Allan Moyle bought a secondhand sofa, and as he was cleaning it he found a diary stuffed into its cushions. As he read through it, he realized it had been written by a young woman, one who’d lived on the streets and had probably been emotionally disturbed. Even though Moyle had only directed one film in his career, he used the diary to start writing a script, and eventually came up with Times Square. There aren’t many movies about female rockers, but the few that exist have become cult favorites — hence starting Feminéma’s very first Cult Marathon for Movies About Female Rockers.

When I say cult movie, I don’t mean the big-budget numbers like last year’s The Runaways or 2006’s Dreamgirls, nor do I mean the Spice Girls movie Spice World (1997) or Josie and the Pussycats (2003). The very term evokes little-known movies, or films that died at the box office, or were critically panned and went undiscovered for a while — like Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains, which I wrote about last month. Thus, I’m not writing about films that were wrongfully denied prizes; on a strictly critical level, these films have their problems. The pleasure of the cult film comes in other, secret, subtextual meanings — occasionally demanding that we read against the film for the things it implies yet seems to reject. Times Square is just such a movie; and for some of those readings and/or personal responses to it, check out this fanblog, DefeatedAndGifted, or this response by the author of the PussyRock Fanzine (and many thanks to both of them for these great screen caps):

When I first saw this movie, it was a fucking epiphany. I was 14 years old, hospitalised in a psychiatric unit and just getting into alternative culture. Times Square was a revelation. It showed you how exciting and chaotic the big city could be and how it would inspire and stimulate you as well as scare you. That was my dream — to run away to the bright lights and have my own creative renaissance and be discovered by some cool alternative media Svengali. It seemed like Nicky and Pamela represented the 2 halves of my personality and my 2 possible futures. … This movie seemed like the only thing remotely resembling and evoking my mood and hopes and fears at the time.

Pamela (Trini Alvarado, left) is the über good-girl daughter of the NY city commissioner, but being good has left her feeling like a soulless zombie; Nicky (Robin Johnson, right) is a street tough with disruptive, antisocial tendencies. They meet in the mental ward of a hospital being checked out for similar conditions — how else can adults explain these girls’ unwillingness to be “normal” and “happy”? — and despite the differences between them, they recognize one another as similar souls, so they run away together to live in an abandoned building near the downtown docks. At first they focus just on surviving. But because of Pamela’s father’s efforts to find her using posters and radio notices that emphasize Nicky’s mental instability, they gradually start to articulate a reaction against the normative world around them. Those articulations are easier for the educated, poetic, gentle Pamela; but they’re more explosive from Nicky, who embraces their new underworld identity as The Sleez Sisters:

The film’s fame comes from moments like that — the girls’ energizing, exuberant defiance of the status quo. It also comes from the queer relationship between them which, though never explicitly sexualized, is clearly the real story of this film. In fact, the original cut had far more lesbian content; due to radical conflicts between the film’s producer Robert Stigwood and director Moyle, who eventually quit the project in frustration, Times Square was brutally edited — and it shows in choppy and nonsensical narrative leaps. (Do any diehard fans out there know whether that cut footage still exists? What a great addition it would make to a DVD.) The only way men matter to the lives of Nicky and Pamela is as conflicting authority figures — Pamela’s uptight father and, at the other end of the spectrum, a local radio DJ with his own agenda (Tim Curry) — these girls are primarily dedicated to one another in a way that goes beyond simple friendship and even simple love.

The most poignant and perfect expression of their bond is a beautifully-shot scene in the drydock, looking out over the harbor. They’ve just found it and have decided this’ll be their home, and they need to adjust to their new style of life. Nicky tells Pamela that if either one of them is ever in trouble, they should scream out the other’s name for help: “PAMMY! PAMMY! PAMMY!” she screams to demonstrate; Pamela responds: “NICKY! NICKY! NICKY!” It’s the equivalent of one of those male bonding scenes in which two dudes slice open their hands to exchange blood with one another, but this is more subversive; it signals that these girls might well face sexual violence or attack while living on the street. Yet screaming together gives them a voice (just like we were taught in those self-defense classes in college) and it makes them giddy and giggly, too; it’s like a spell they cast around them that cements their tie to one another. It’s specifically a feminine bonding moment based on female danger and a rejection of female victimhood — no wonder the film reads so obviously as queer despite the heavy editing.

Watching this film reminds you of the commentators in the amazing documentary The Celluloid Closet who describe watching certain films over and over and over just to catch that one amazing queer moment. No wonder Times Square was “a fucking epiphany.” The rock/punk scenes — “I’m a Damn Dog Now” in the above clip, and the “Your Daughter is One” scene you can find on YouTube — don’t just confirm the girls’ outsider status, but show how that music looked different if it was done by girls, and how subversive it might be if they embraced a whole lot of racial and sexual epithets. So what if this movie’s crazy storyline leaves you scratching your head a bit (who ever saw homeless girls with such enviable wardrobes? with such a great furnished “apartment”? who so easily get jobs in a topless joint, yet don’t have to go topless?). I can be snooty about such things (remember my unwillingness to overlook the narrative gaps in Easy A?), but I finished watching it and only wanted to return to certain scenes over and over and over. One of the last scenes, in which an army of teenage girl fans of the Sleez Sisters show up wearing the same black-mask makeup as Nicky, didn’t make any narrative sense but made me wish the statement would come back, even thirty years after the movie’s initial release.

One final note about that army of teenage girl fans: there was a similar plot element in Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains, although it was deeply troubling in that later film. Clearly, films of this early 80s generation realized that teenage girls were looking for an outlet, a leader, someone to articulate their frustration. Was this how filmmakers addressed the question of feminism as it pertained to a young generation? Or was it a more ambivalent gesture — in Susan Douglas’s terms, filmmakers “took feminism into account” for a brief moment and then ignored it? I’m left on the fence…with only a long list of more cult films about female rockers to help me answer it. Rock on, readers.