Filminism: Chicks Who Rock
“Being told that girls can’t play rock ‘n’ roll — I mean, even as a kid, it was so illogical to me. It’s like, what do you mean? That girls can’t master the instruments? I’m in school with girls playing cello and violin and Beethoven and Bach. You don’t mean they can’t master the instrument. What you mean is they’re not allowed, socially — it’s a societal thing.” Joan Jett, Interview magazine, 2010.
Chicks can rock. And they do. Even if they’re not playing rock ‘n’ roll, a female musician has just as much power to melt your face off with their talent and attitude as any male musician. Is it because they have something to prove? Maybe. Is it because they have generations worth of anger at stereotypes and oppression to strike back against? Perhaps. But most likely, chicks who rock do so because it’s in their blood; making music is what drives them, gives them a reason to wake up in the morning. Despite all the bullshit that surrounds being a female musician, they stick with it, thus inspiring legions of other girls to do the same — and inspiring filmmakers to tell their stories.
There are many films about musicians, but not a great deal about female musicians, particularly female rock musicians. Even so, coming up with my list of favorites was tough. I originally wanted to only write about films featuring women rock musicians, but I decided to broaden my scope a little bit when I realized there were a lot of movies about or featuring badass chicks whose music wasn’t rock, but they rocked anyway (does that make sense?).
My list includes both fictional chicks who rock and biopics about kick-ass lady musicians. There is a bit of a blur between those lines with some of these films, as they are not outright biopics, but are clearly inspired by certain female musicians. I’m sure my list is missing some of your favorite chicks who rock, so let me know who makes your list in the comments.
Ladies & Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (1982): The Stains (Corinne “Third Degree” Burns – Diane Lane; Jessica McNeil – Laura Dern; Tracy Burns – Marin Kanter)
When I originally decided to write about this particular topic, The Fabulous Stains was the first movie I thought to include. It had been out-of-print for many years, so I didn’t get a chance to see it until it was finally released on DVD a few years ago. I immediately fell in love with it and with The Stains themselves. I’ve always been a huge fan of Lane’s, but I’m more familiar with her work from the 90s onward, so this early, forgotten gem was a revelation for me. I knew Lane had the ability to play a ballsy chick, despite the Must Love Dogs and Nights in Rodanthes of her career, I just didn’t realize she could play such a badass. And a punk badass, at that. She plays Corinne with anger and vulnerability, never letting the audience forget that while she may be a punk chick who makes her own rules, she’s still a teenage girl acting out as she grieves over the loss of her mother. Dern and Kanter also turn in excellent performances as the other two Stains, Jessica and Tracy, who happen to be Corinne’s cousin and sister, respectively. They go along with Corinne’s plan for the band reluctantly at first, but eventually begin to enjoy the noteriety the Stains receive.They both act has Corinne’s reminder that the adventure they’re embarking upon is not without its dangers and that, when her ego starts to expand, she isn’t the only member of the band.
Let’s talk about the band for a minute and how amazing and ahead of their time they were, even though they are fictional. You could put the three of them — with their two-toned hair, sexy/tough outfits, red eyeliner and rough-around-the-edges punk sound — on stage at almost any rock club today, and they’d do just fine. I don’t know if they’d inspire legions of girls to wear see-through tops at a shopping mall, like Corinne does in the movie, but I think they’d at least get some folks to copy their hairstyles and maybe cover their songs — after all, “covering” a song is how they made a name for themselves.
Light of Day (1987): Patti Rasnick (Joan Jett)
It’s probably pretty meta for me to start this piece with a quote from Joan Jett, then discuss a film in which she plays a fictional rock star and, finally, go on to talk about the movie made about her time in the Runaways, in which someone else portrays her. But in the world of film, the universe tends to fold in on itself and everything refers to something else, so I guess it is what it is.
Light of Day was Jett’s feature film debut and in it she plays a troubled aspiring rock star battling not only addiction and her inner demons, but her family as well. Though Michael J. Fox is fairly unbelievable as Patti’s working-class rock musician brother, Joe, Jett is perfectly cast and does a pretty fantastic job as Patti. She’s very natural in the role and you never really feel as though she’s acting. And, of course, she kills every scene in which she and her band, the Barbusters, are performing. I really wish this movie had a little more polish because it, and Jett’s performance, are diamonds in the rough.
Breaking Glass (1980): Kate (Hazel O’Connor)
I had never heard of Breaking Glass until Netflix recommended it to me, just as I started working on this column. As someone who loves punk, and pretty much anything related to it, this should’ve been a film I’d already seen at least once. But, alas, I think it was out-of-print until very recently. It tells the tale of Kate, struggling, anarchistic punk musician who begins the rocky — and confusing — road to fame after hooking up with an eager young promoter who becomes her manager and pushes to make her a success. As she and her band become more popular, their music changes, morphing from angry punk to experimental new wave (for the record, I’ve been obsessed with the soundtrack since I got my hands on it). Kate changes as well, becoming so wrapped up in her success that she begins to realize that she’s becoming a part of the machine she used to be so vehemently against.
From what I understand, this movie has two very different endings. In one, Kate delivers an incredible performance of her song “Eighth Day,” then the film ends, leading the audience to believe she’s reluctantly accepted her fate as a “sell-out.” In the other, she winds up having a nervous breakdown after the performance, her life becoming so detached from her belief system that she just can’t handle it, and winds up in a mental hospital. I’ve never seen that second ending, as only the first one is available on the DVD released here in the States, but I find both to be interesting commentaries on success in the music world and what it does to someone like Kate, who claims she only wants to get her message out and doesn’t care about being a star.
Satisfaction (1988): The Mystery (Jennie Lee – Justine Bateman; Mooch – Trini Alvarado; Billy – Britta Phillips; Daryle – Julia Roberts)
So, maybe Jennie Lee and her band, the Mystery, aren’t the greatest girl band to ever show up on film. But they sure do have a lot of fun when they play and that’s really refreshing. They’re young and enjoying the fact that they have a band that has a steady gig. Yeah, they have some issues — one of them is addicted to drugs, one has a controlling douchebag boyfriend, another is a thief and the last one falls for a much older man who has a fondness for booze. And their songs feature too much cowbell. But they’re good friends who always have each other’s backs, even when one of them does something stupid. Because of — or maybe in spite of — all that, I love them.
When I wrote about Satisfaction last year for my Soundtrack Saturday column, I said that, even though this is a star vehicle for Bateman (and also the first feature film for Roberts), it’s Phillips who steals the show and I stand by that. Every time I watch this film, I’m more taken by her and how much of a charming mess she is as Billy, not to mention the fact that she’s the only one in the cast with any real musical talent (you may know her as a member of Luna, the Britta half of Dean & Britta, or as the singing voice of Jem of Jem & the Holograms). I kind of wish Billy and Alvarado’s Mooch would have left Jennie Lee and Daryle behind early in the film to form their own rival band. Then, the movie could’ve ended in a battle of the bands, kind of like the Holograms vs. the Misfits.
Streets of Fire (1984): Ellen Aim (Diane Lane)
I’m probably going to get some shit for including Ellen Aim here, especially since Diane Lane has already made the list playing a much more rockin’ chick. But I can’t help it — I love her. I don’t really think Ellen’s any kind of serious musician, ready to sacrifice everything for her art — I think she’s what you would consider a serious pop star, in it for the fame and money (though, maybe a little for the music). But, she has a hot ex-boyfriend who rescues her from a very greasy, very creepy Willem Dafoe, who kindaps her for reasons I’m still not quite clear about. She also has an extremely dapper back-up band, her songs are some serious power pop/rock, and her hair and clothing are pretty rad. So, yeah, I love her.
I’m sure this will be obvious to you when you watch this video clip (and I had a really hard time picking between this one and “Nowhere Fast”), but, unlike in Ladies & Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains, Lane is not providing the vocals for Ellen — those are courtesy of Holly Sherwood, Laurie Sargent and Marilyn Martin. She still rocks, though.
Prey for Rock & Roll (2003): Clam Dandy (Jacki – Gina Gershon; Tracy – Drea de Matteo; Faith – Lori Petty; Sally – Shelly Cole)
I debated with myself over whether or not to include this film in my list because I have some major issues with it. But it when it comes down to it, I have to say that I have a soft spot for the ladies of Clam Dandy. Do I think they are somewhat campy and clichéd? Yes. Do I think their music is the greatest? No, though it isn’t terrible at all — and I am impressed with most of the cast for committing so fully to their roles that they learned to play their instruments for the movie (and Gershon even mounted a small promtional tour). Am I bothered by the way they handle rape and death? Yes, though not as much as some reviewers — everyone deals with grief and tragedy in their own way, even if that way is fucked up. But I do love their spunk and determination and I think the cast has a great chemistry, which makes the fact that these women would stay together as a band, even through all the shit, more believable. I think Clam Dandy’s story has a place in the canon of films about female musicians, even if it is irritating and filled with stereotypes — the world of music is, too.
Grace of My Heart (1996): Denise Waverly (Illeana Douglas)
When you’re a female singer-songwriter in the 1960s who’s told that there is no place for you as a “girl performer,” what do you do? Give up and go home to get married and have babies? Not if you’re Denise Waverly (a.k.a Edna Buxton), you don’t. Instead, you set up shop in the Brill Building and you write songs for other artists until someone recognizes that you are a brilliant performer in your own right. Along the way, you get involved in tragically bad relationships with other musical geniuses, one of whom produces your first record. And after surviving a plethora of personal tragedies, you put out a record of beatiful music that everyone loves and you are proclaimed one of the most talented female musicians of your era, inspiring all chick singer-songwriters who come after you. (This is also something you might do if your name is Carole King.)
If you’ve read my Soundtrack Saturday post about this movie, you already know how much I love it and Douglas’s performance as Denise. The scene featured in the clip below should’ve won that woman an Oscar.
The Rose (1979): Mary Rose Foster (Bette Midler)
You know what still amazes me about The Rose? That it was Bette Midler’s first feature film. Isn’t that insane? That her incredible, intense portrayal of the Janis Joplin-esque Mary Rose Foster, for which she was nominted for an Oscar, came in her very first movie just blows me away. OK, yes, I know that she has some random, sketchy film credits before this one. But do we really want to count them? I kind of think we shouldn’t. Her film career starts here and boy, what a way to introduce yourself to the world (well, the world outside bath houses and the theatre). I’d always found the casting of Midler in this role to be kind of weird, as she is probably the least Joplin-like person I can think of. But after watching The Rose again for this column, I take that back. She’s a wonderful blend of vulnerable and crass, kind and bitchy. She is the perfect talented disaster. And while her voice may be more refined than Joplin’s ever was, she can make it as gritty and dirty as she wants to. And can you just imagine how amazing her Oscar speech would’ve been had she won? I like to imagine that she would have had Barry Manilow on stage for accompaniment.
Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980): Loretta Lynn (Sissy Spacek)
So, technically, Loretta Lynn’s music isn’t “rock,” but she certainly does, as does Spacek’s portrayal of her in the film based upon Lynn’s autobiography. Let’s recap, shall we? Lynn was married at the age of 13, had four children by the time she was 19, taught herself to play guitar and cut her first record when she was 25. She’s had an incredible 70 songs chart in her storied career, with 16 of them hitting number one. She wrote groundbreaking songs about lying, cheating assholes; slutty mistresses; being unhappy about having too many babies and, then, subsequently discovering birth control; and the male/female double standard, among other controversial topics. She’s smart and feisty, as well as kind and maternal. She has drive and ambition, but isn’t afraid to admit she needs help every once in awhile. And above all, she has incredible talent. She is a badass, no?
To find an actress that could embody all of these things to portray Loretta could have been a gargantuan task for any casting director. But Lynn herself chose Spacek and, though she had no experience casting a film, she certainly knew exactly what was needed in the actress who would play her. Interestingly, though, Spacek was hesitant to take the role at first. She eventually relented, turning in one of the best performances of her career — which included doing all of her own singing — and winning her first Oscar.
Sweet Dreams (1985): Patsy Cline (Jessica Lange)
A few years after the release of Coal Miner’s Daughter, a biopic about Loretta Lynn’s best friend, Patsy Cline, was released. Cline, who was portrayed by Beverly D’Angelo in the Lynn biopic, is played in Sweet Dreams by Jessica Lange. Just like Sissy Spacek was for Coal Miner’s Daughter, Lange was also nominated for an Oscar for her performance, though she did not win. As much as I love this movie, and Lange’s portrayal of one of my favorite singers, I’m nowhere near as attached to it as I am Coal Miner’s Daughter, which is one of my favorite movies of all time. But I do adore Cline and I think her story is compelling and tragic — she leaves her husband to marry another man, giving up her singing career to raise his children. But after he joins the Army and leaves her alone with their children, she begins performing again and, this time, her career takes off, much to the chagrin of her husband, who resents her success and becomes abusive. She’s a tough broad with incredible talent who is forced to balance domesticity with being a fiercely independent country music diva. Sadly, her story did not end on a happy note (spoiler alert: she died in a plane crash at the tender age of 30) and we are forced to wonder what might have been. (Side note — can you believe she was only 30 when she died? She looked so much older in pretty much every photograph I’ve ever seen of her.)
What’s Love Got to Do With It (1993): Tina Turner (Angela Bassett)
You didn’t think I was going to forget about Tina, did you? How could I? In the realm of badass chicks who rock, Tina is simply the best. She survived one of music’s most tumultuous, abusive relationships (with ex-husband, Ike) to become a huge star as a solo act, becoming somewhat of a symbol of triumph over domestic abuse. And Angela Bassett perfectly captures Tina’s essence in her portrayal, which garnered her an Oscar nomination — right down to the dance moves. My only beef with Ms. Bassett as Tina is the upper arm situation — I don’t think Tina’s arms were ever that buff, were they?
The Runaways (2010): The Runaways (Joan Jett – Kristen Stewart; Cherie Currie – Dakota Fanning; Sandy West – Stella Maeve; Lita Ford – Scout Taylor-Compton; Robin – Alia Shawkat)
When I first found out that Dakota Fanning would play Cherie Currie and Kristen Stewart would play Joan Jett in the Runaways biopic, my reaction was, “Oh really, now?” Then I started to see photos of them during filming and I was, like, “OK, this might not be so bad.” Then I saw the movie and I was sold. I’m not really a fan of either actress, but I thought they both did a great job. The big test, for me, was the fact that they held their own against Michael Shannon as Kim Fowley (full disclosure: Michael Shannon is my secret boyfriend. Don’t tell him — I’m waiting for the perfect moment), who is delightfully crazypants, per usual. Yeah, I know there were other chicks in this movie and they all did a fine job, even poor Alia Shawkat, who gets no lines and whose character only has a first name. But, let’s be honest — this flick is all about Currie and Jett and their portrayers, one of whom is trying desperately to let the world know she’s not a kid anymore, and the other of whom is trying to maintain the facade of not giving a shit when she secretly does. I know a lot people hated this movie, but I have to give a high five to these chicks for giving it their all. I mean, look at Dakota go. “Cherry Bomb” indeed.