Director: Jaimey Groot
Running time: 50mins
When Jaimey Groot was given the chance to document Judy Blank’s tour of Nashville, she was taking on a subject with a ready-made soundtrack. Blank has a sound that seems tailor-made for independent cinema – her music spans pared-down acoustic ballads to low-fi electronic anthems, foot-stamping swamp rock and everything in between, while organically weaving deeply personal stories and sweeping allegories though it all.
First and foremost, Groot’s documentary does an excellent job of showcasing the versatility of Blank’s music. Arguably, that is the most important thing here; she has provided an effective showcase of Blank’s talent and her working process. However, her aim was also to tell a story about self-doubt and human frailty.
As naturally talented as Blank might be, there are plenty of things for her to worry about. Originally from Utrecht, Blank tells us that she felt nobody understood her, or her love for ‘Americana’, back in the Netherlands. Even if they were appreciative of a performance, they would tell her they “loved country music” – pigeonholing Blank in a way she was keen to escape.
To be clear, Americana is not country. It is born of various American roots music styles, including country – as well as roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B and blues – but it has its own distinct sound and style. I’m not a music journalist, so you won’t get much more of an explanation from me than that – but it is a genre that many artists have worked in while being better known for other genres (Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash, The Killers, etc) so I can also see why it has fallen between the cracks in discourse outside the US.
Hoping to find a more appreciative audience, the three years leading to the documentary saw Blank relocate to Nashville, Tennessee. Having spent that time working her way up from open mic nights to local festivals, Groot’s camera joins her as she embarks on a promotional tour in the famous city around the release of her second album, Morning Sun.
Throughout the opening scenes, we follow Blank as she performs live on various radio shows, and at local festivals – all which go well enough, before a rehearsal session finally hints at the underlying pressures of her life as an up-and-coming musician. The practice itself is enthralling, as we see how she and her bandmates shape a song together for a later performance – only for Blank’s phone to suddenly interrupt. She has got her timing wrong regarding another engagement, and suddenly finds herself rushing across the city.
As time progresses, the stress levels rise further. Blank talks about her need for a break, and about how she can’t “keep doing this alone” – a cry for help I’m particularly familiar with around this time of year, when I begin having to organise IFL’s annual festival – something which Groot’s director’s statement suggests is reflective of many “young people who feel that they have to perform at all times, that their careers don’t just happen, that they have to seize every opportunity that comes by and that they have to do everything themselves.”
Using this as an opportunity to examine the atomised norms and beliefs of young people, trying to build a career in late capitalism, would have been interesting. Certainly, the film contains material which hints at it to that end. But I can’t help but feel that it doesn’t go far enough on that front. Groot seems just a little too light-touch when it comes to her approach, and might have dared to push a little further when certain relevant topics come up.
For example, at multiple points Blank is keen to point out she is determined to succeed while still being herself. She adds that while some of her soul-baring lyrics might feature aspects of her inner-self that are “nobody else’s business”, they make her music “authentic” in a way that helps other people connect to them.
Creators of art and poetry have often made a habit of sharing their darkest inner thoughts, as a means of therapy. The presentation of their private feelings wasn’t just motivated by the idea that ‘authenticity breeds sales’ – but by the thought that on some level, they could reach out to other people for empathy and understanding. Like any entrenched journalist, Groot might have found it hard to push lines of questioning for fear of rocking the boat, but this was a great opportunity to explore that theme of young people succeeding, by making a performance or commodity of themselves.
At the same time, Blank’s accent seems like it is at least worth bringing up. Like most Dutch people, she speaks excellent English. But I have never met anyone from the Netherlands, or specifically Utrecht, who has such a distinct Southern States twang when they speak it. It also seems to become more or less pronounced, depending on whether or not Blank is near a microphone.
It may be that there are several causes of this; if you live somewhere with as distinct an accent as Nashville for several years, it will impact how you speak, while subconsciously you may even start imitating it in moments of scrutiny, where you worry people will think “you don’t belong here.” It would be very interesting to see what Blank thinks this evolution of her voice says about how comfortable she is in herself and, again, if it is a reflection of her having to “perform at all times.” Examining these matters of self-perception and the commodification of our own identities might have been tricky to tie up neatly in the end, but they also would have enriched what is otherwise quite a straightforward narrative.
As it is, the biggest spanner in the works comes just after the half-way point, when it is implied that someone may have said they didn’t like Judy Blank’s music. She notes that it is hard not to feel like “they don’t like me” if they don’t like what they hear. This comes at a point where one particular venue has positioned the artists on the porch, next to its front door – and the band cut dejected figures as customers continue to shuffle in and out, past them.
In terms of the Hero’s Journey, it’s not the most massive of ‘Ordeals’, but it is further de-fanged by a lack of any external consequences. Beyond how Blank and her band feel, we never hear anything from audiences directly, whether they liked the show or not. This means that when they supposedly overcome the set-back for the film’s triumphant conclusion – one last great performance – we don’t have any stakes to measure the contrast with. Aside from the fact they were allowed on an actual stage, with a real audience that time, anyway.
Even so, there is something unavoidably enjoyable about I Do Matter. It follows a relatable and fallible central figure, who moved across the world to follow her passion – while putting out music that will be stuck in your head for days after. If nothing else, Groot’s film has given a great platform to an artist I would probably not have otherwise heard of – and I am very grateful for that.
Indy Film Library’s 2023 showcase will take place on April 29th at Filmhuis Cavia. I Do Matter will be part of that programme. Amid our own event built by young artists, looking to connect with an understanding audience, it will provide a fitting soundtrack.
I Do Matter is showing at this year’s IFL showcase in Amsterdam. Tickets are already on sale via Eventbrite, and the IFL website. Admission will also be available at the door, but attendees should purchase in advance to avoid disappointment. Following the screenings, the winning films of IFL’s 2023 submissions cycle will be announced.