Director: Erin Richardson
Writers: Julia Bertola & Erin Richardson
Cast: Joy Bernus, Kelly Estomo, Robyn Bond, Katarina Keca
Running time: 9mins
More often than not, the effectiveness of a film centring on the trials and tribulations of a band hinges on the standard of music delivered. Certainly there are exceptions to this rule – a mocumentary focusing on a struggling covers-band which is roundly booed from stage probably needs to avoid too many toe-tapping numbers, for example – but even if you have a compelling story, a polished script, or a stellar cast to deliver it with, if you don’t manage to get the audience to engage with the music, they’re going to leave feeling more than a little short-changed.
Can you imagine a Blues Brothers where there was no convincing blues or jazz numbers, for instance? Elsewhere, without some tightly honed songs to base its beautifully vulgar lyrics or underwhelming stage set-pieces around, Spinal Tap would have been a one-dimensional parody, sorely lacking in authenticity or something to contrast its more absurdist humour against. Similarly, Scott Pilgrim vs The World might have come across as a rather traditional, if annoyingly-media-literate, tale of fickle young love – were its musical interludes not of the quality on display.
I’m sorry to say that the rougher edges of Girls to the Front! are badly exposed by this crucial factor. The ‘punk’ performance at its climax falls horribly flat, having been billed consistently as the biggest performance of the characters’ careers – leaving a barebones story, a slapdash attempt at addressing #MeToo, and some tortuous dialogue with nowhere to hide.
Emma, Rachel, and April are Dude Purse, an all-female Canadian punk band with their eyes set on world-fame, whether they like it or not. While singer and lyricist Emma (Joy Bernus) frets that the band may be about to make it big, and that might cause them to sell out, lead-guitar Rachel (Kelly Estomo) is confident that Dude Purse are on the verge of becoming “the dopest band since The Clash.” That is, before Rachel’s new girlfriend Josie (Katarina Keca) turns up – and wouldn’t you just know, she and Emma have prior scores to settle.
What follows feels rather like the old Clubhouses episode of South Park, where the Marsh family goes through divorce, the introduction and expulsion of a step-father, and reconciliation in the space of one day. Josie quickly moves from being the friendly newcomer, to the interfering Yoko Ono, to the meddling Jeanine Pettibone of Spinal Tap, bent on pushing Emma out of the group to make herself a star – before our hero reclaims her rightful place at the front of the stage. If that sounds like too much to cram into a film of nine minutes, that’s because it probably is.
Meanwhile, while South Park went through its archetypal story in an accelerated and exaggerated manner is used to comic effect – with Trey Parker and Matt Stone using it to craft a joke about cultural clichés, and the tendency of people to throw the baby out with the bath-water when presented with a problem, before immediately repeating the same mistakes having learned nothing – in Girls to the Front! the story comes across as rushed, with a number of important issues brushed past and handled without due care.
The script, for one thing, comes across as having been drafted on the fly, and is ridden with dead-ends which seem like Richardson and Bertola became distracted by other ideas, mid-sentence. As a result, dialogue which needed to be edgy or combative comes across as inconsequential and absent minded, almost feeling as though it was written using an iPhone’s predictive text function. When two characters argue, or one attempts to threaten the other, then, it is via a series of meandering conjunctions, delivered without accompanying subordinate clauses. The actors do what they can to make the dialogue feel like it carries some kind of a weight (Keca does an especially good job of this as the snake-like Josie), but through all the bluster of “you better run as far from here as possible” and “I’m going to stick my boot so far up your swampy ass” viewers will find themselves waiting for an “or”, or “that” that never arrives.
Worse still, though, the scatter-brained storytelling badly undermines the film’s attempt to address casting couch culture, which is as much a part of the music industry as it is the world of cinema. Backstage, before the climactic gig the film builds towards, Emma is confronted by Josie, who finally reveals exactly why she so bitterly resents her. Apparently, in their previous lives in a different band, Emma had ‘cost’ Josie a chance at stardom, by fighting off the non-consensual advances of an executive at a major record label.
For one moment, the emotion is raw and real, the opportunity to focus on this thread of the plot presents an opportunity to meaningfully examine one of the most important issues currently facing the entertainment industry – and indeed, the world. The question of survivors of sexual assault holding their attackers – shielded for so long by wealth and influence – accountable is one which needs to be kept high on our agendas, as society pushes for to change a number of systemic injustices which still govern our daily lives. Independent filmmakers can, and should, do all they can to help with this process, but they need to do so patiently, and with great care.
Emma is left in tears by her altercation with Josie, who uses it as an opportunity to insert herself into the band as new lead-singer. This comes with no effort whatsoever from the other band members to find out what has caused their friend to have an apparent anxiety attack. Seconds later, Josie butchers her performance, which focuses largely on calling herself a “bitch” and talking about wearing leather – revealing her to be a “poser.” As the crowd bays for blood, Emma reappears to show us how it’s done. Roll credits.
The problem with this is it suggests rape-apologists will likely get their just desserts based on their lack of talent – something mainstream culture regularly shows us is patently untrue. Meanwhile, we have no opportunity to address the shoddy allies Emma’s band mates have made, or been given any indication they should have to change their behaviour in future – other than them now knowing that they need to back Emma’s talent if they want to succeed. And sadly, all of this is underscored by the music which plays us out.
Emma’s performance might by slightly more lyrically nuanced than Josie’s, but punk it is not. Over the top of an instantly forgettable guitar riff and drum beat, she softly sighs her apparently “angry” words, in a performance with all the grit and fire of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s Hushabye Mountain. It is evidently not a live performance, either, with a studio performance having been synced up to Dude Purse’s showcase – retracting any potential room for that unpolished, volatile edge that makes punk worth listening to in the first place. It looks like The Clash’s reputation as ‘dopest band’ of all time is pretty secure on these grounds.
Director Erin Richardson and her co-writer Julia Bertola need to take more time when addressing some fairly weighty issues, or lengthy character arcs in future projects – or avoid telling them, and focus on simpler, cleaner storytelling. Budget and scheduling limitations might well have caused them to have to rush much of the meat of Girls at the Front! but if that is the case, then they need to be more aware of their limits. Much like punk bands, independent filmmakers need to be able to thrive against the odds; if they don’t have the resources to deliver a polished end-product in line with more established artists, do something different – something innovative, grimy, maybe even out of tune; but ultimately something more authentic.
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