What begins as a paean to the musical release of wiggles soon morphs into a sobering reveal of feminine pre-teen dejection in "Girls Rock!," an intelligent, eye-opening documentary that gives young women a chance to open their tightly-guarded hearts and explore their talents and bliss.
The place is the "Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls," located in Portland, Oregon. For five days every year, the camp welcomes a small bustle of pre-teen and teenage girls assembling to expose their inner P.J. Harvey. The camp's intent is to get these girls and their burgeoning gifts comfortable with musicianship and band dynamic, but what really occurs at this retreat is a spiritual awakening of confidence, brought on by the power of performance.
Directed by Arne Johnson and Shane King, "Rock" is fractured filmmaking concerned with two dynamics of the camp: the first, of course, is the birth of musical appreciation, as the camp gathers a diverse cross section of personalities and ethnic backgrounds to ball up into groups that explore the genesis of songwriting and recital. However, that's merely a cover for the meat of the matter: fragile female psyches and their deterioration in the growing media avalanche of self-loathing and sexualized pop culture images.
Armed with potent statistics taking aim at the continual erosion of female empowerment and the dissolution within critical areas of identity, "Rock" gives us the modern woman and the myriad of ways she suppresses her dreams and opinions for fear of ridicule. The camp is crammed with individuals suffering from an extreme lack of self-esteem, including the stars of the show: firecracker Palace (age 7), death metal enthusiast Laura (15), troubled Misty (17), and attention craver Amaka (8), who all arrive with their own heavy baggage of emotional issues and iffy body images. While coated in an unnecessarily frenzied animation style that almost begs the mind to tune out, the messages are essential to better understand how the average teenage girl is faring out there among the community vultures.
The bulk of "Rock" is devoted to the fine art of band communication, and how these shy girls fight their own inhibitions to form tentative bonds that yield workable tunes. The camp is presided over by a team of "moms" and musicians (including Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney and Beth Ditto of The Gossip), established to turn the tide back to the promising riot grrrl movement of the 90s, which promoted strong images of intelligent and talented female rockers, lost long ago to the ways of Britney and further dimensions of stripper-cum-singer juggernauts that has steamrolled tween culture over the last 10 years.
It's a wonderful attitude to hold, and "Girls Rock" inventories some impressive results, watching these young women come alive to the beat, losing themselves in the primal scream of it all, away from disapproving parents and general rules of brutal junior high engagement. Not everyone gets along with their peers (the frighteningly mature Palace is unreal in her demands and articulation), but the overall vibe of the week is positive, and for those like Laura, who covers her significant body image pain with a booming outgoing personality, the camp experience is euphoric and joyously reassuring.
Working from an HD video source, the "Girls Rock" anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1 aspect ratio) presentation is hindered by color bleeding and murky black levels, which detract from the detail-rich atmosphere of the camp. No digital defects were detected.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound mix on "Girls Rock" preserves the interview audio quality trapped in the middle of the noise, which is crucial to the film's success. The rest of the mix is a sonic roller coaster ride of blitzkrieg camp rehearsal moments and silent pit stops for personal reflection. A nice sense of distortion helps to immerse the listener into the world of garage rock/punk/pre-menstrual mayhem. A 2.0 mix is also available.
English SDH subtitles are included.
A feature-length audio commentary with filmmakers Shane King and Arne Johnson is a delightful, engaging journey into the making of "Girls Rock," with most of the attention paid to BTS anecdotes on how interviews were pulled from the girls. King and Johnson are extremely conversational, discussing the experience being at the camp, their own rock dreams, and overall technical challenges. More importantly, the duo chat about the bonds formed with the documentary participants and how that ease helped to open up the film's perspective. It's a wonderful listen.
"Where Are They Rockin' Now?" (30:53) catches up with Laura, Amaka, Palace, Misty, and Marie/Marissa three years after filming, questioning the girls on how the camp changed their lives and what their future is looking like these days. Time has done nothing to dilute the creative energy these young ladies radiate. This is a must-see featurette.
"'Girls Rock" Heroines" (47:22) contains interviews with singer Beth Ditto and Carrie Brownstein, clips from a camp improv session entitled "Sistaz Skit," and an excerpt from the documentary "Don't Need You: A Herstory of Riot Grrrl." Stories of triumph, personal sacrifice, and a little complaining ensue.
"The Ready Performs" (6:08) showcases two performances from the camp supergroup: "Jen (I Try, I Try) and "Little Yellow Lemon Song."
"DIY Rock Tools" (15:19) offers advice ("Self Defense," "Zines," and "Rock Career") on building an impenetrable hipster career, collected from various interview segments.
A Theatrical Trailer is also included.
Battling over band names, lyrical intent, microphone time, musical direction, and loose ideas of artistic merit (Amaka is a child who treasures her noise), these budding rock stars are a bewitching bundle of personalities who feel the triumph of every successfully landed riff and the familiar crush of social exclusion. It's a captivating five days inside the core of this exceptional outlet for creativity and expression; a film not just to be commended and enjoyed, but a remarkable camp that should be a requirement for every teen girl out there in dire need of empowerment and focus.
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