This one time, at band camp, I learned how to bring the noise
By Marisa Demarco
Directed by Arne Johnson and Shane King
It's a nearly clichéd statement: Girls rock. But a documentary of the same chantable, anthemic title brings us to new territory: Little girls rock, too—with full-sized instruments, piercing shrieks and loud-as-you-please amps.
Based on the Rock ’n’ Roll Camp for Girls that trains young women ages 8 through 18 in Portland, Ore., film directors Arne Johnson & Shane King introduce a motley cast of characters. Amelia has one friend in school and prefers unstructured, noise-heavy experimentation to traditional chords. She’s writing 14 songs about her Chihuahua, Pippi. Palace is a doll-faced 8-year-old concerned with clothes and, subsequently, how to become a product.
They’re not all easy stories. Laura is a smiling death metal lover who’s always reaching out for hugs. Long ago, she came to terms with the fact that she hates herself. Misty is a hip-hop fan leaving a hard life of drugs and gangs, and as part of her recovery, she’s been put in the camp.
Every girl in the film is slashing her way through the forests of patriarchy with one hand while learning how to operate her instrument with the other. On top of that, the camp teaches girls how to treat other girls, as one mother tearfully explains.
The camp is a classic beehive experiment. On the first day, the girls are asked en masse to walk around the room and find their bandmates. Camp councilors are outstanding female musicians, including The Gossip’s Beth Ditto. They work with each band over just one week to show the girls how to play their instruments—and how to play them together.
The film is a concentrated study of bands’ classic pitfalls. Ego battles emerge, musical differences appear, background clashes crop up and some girls feel their ideas aren’t listened to. One band almost breaks up. Prepubescent Palace is quite the frontwoman drama queen. Plus, she’s a biter.
At the end of the week, though, the girls seem to be getting it. Laura tells the camera she knows all kinds of girls who are proud of knowing so-and-so from whatever band. “Why not start your own band, supergenius?” she asks. “It’s cooler than dating someone in a band.”
But hasn’t everyone gotten the memo that women rock? Filmmakers say apparently not, providing proof through a series of collage clips set to a kickin’ soundtrack. Even these days, only 22 percent of all musicians in music videos are women. In an era where girls and women are still apologizing for taking up space, the fight to be amplified isn’t over.
The only misstep in the documentary happens during these collage snippets. Feminism is overly simplified, and the battle is indirectly cast as being between Britney Spears and everyone else. The girls in the film speak much more eloquently and specifically to the variety of social pressures they’re shrugging off to participate in what is clearly the best band camp ever.
A screaming exercise that asks each girl to scream as loud as she can prompts giggles and weak squeaks. Everyone talks body issues. Noisy, intense Amelia speaks of her loneliness and isolation as the weird girl in school, and one telling shot shows her walking down the hall hugging her guitar the way some kids might cling to a teddy bear. Not to worry: After the exploration of all the dark awkwardness of a teenage girl’s life, there’s a spotlight and a roaring crowd at the end of the tunnel.
Gather your little sisters, your daughters, your nieces. Hell, bring your brothers, sons and nephews, too. Girls Rock! will have something to say to everyone, along with quite a few things many of us could stand to be reminded of.
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