When punk rock exploded in the mid-1970s, it brought with it a new kind of female artist: a resilient, if misunderstood, figure who battles her inner demons and puts her experience into perspective by making raucous music and finding solidarity with other female musicians, and whose appearance subverts, if not openly rejects, the expectations of what women are supposed to look like. As the first generation of punks near retirement age, a series of documentaries sought to put the scene and their roles in it into perspective. Two such features, Suzi Q and The Go-Go’s, premiered at online film festivals and on streaming services this summer, at least a decade after the release of the earliest retrospective documentaries that focused on women in punk.
They often follow the same format: a montage of the artist or band in concert at their peak interspersed with statements from band members, peers, and industry insiders, and details the protagonist’s struggles with a tumultuous upbringing, catharsis and chosen family through music, rush of overnight success, dabbles in excesses of sex and/or drugs, commercial failure, and either redemption through recovery and healthier relationships or death. These films conclude with a summation of why the artists or bands are important, and if they are still alive, an epilogue of where they are now. VH1 distilled this iteration of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey into a compulsively watchable format for their series Behind the Music, which blended artsy cinematography and music video-style editing with the narrative framing and shocking revelations of tabloid TV. Because of Behind the Music’s ubiquity in the 1990s and early 2000s, this was the narrative style that many fans came to expect from a rock documentary.
Courtney Love, best known as the bandleader of the volatile 1990s quartet Hole, was featured on an episode of Behind the Music in 2010—one year before the release of Hit So Hard, a documentary about Hole drummer Patty Schemel. Though Schemel’s misadventures with sex and drugs would have made her an ideal subject for the series, director P. David Ebersole tells her story out of the expected sequence to destigmatize her experiences and to highlight her road to recovery. After a short scene on Hole’s Lollapalooza tour bus, the film opens with Schemel talking about the first time she drank alcohol and her experiences on the pre-grunge Seattle music scene. Instead of linking how she eventually came to terms with her sexual orientation to her addictions, Ebersole holds off on her coming-out story until midway through the film – and doesn’t push a connection.
By framing the film around Schemel’s addiction and recovery, Ebersole doesn’t have to include long segments about why Hole—or Courtney Love’s husband’s band, Nirvana—were so important. Her tenure in Hole is instead depicted as the kind of just-out-of-college job where interpersonal relationships are blurred, and the boss has a mile-wide manipulative streak. At the height of Hole’s powers, Love was lauded in some circles as a feminist superheroine, but her willingness to throw Schemel out of the band after a macho producer refuses to work with her challenges that perception.
Though the film doesn’t begin where we expect it to, Ebersole leaves Schemel on the fulfilling note we’ve come to expect from rockumentaries: recovered from her addictions and happily married; the mother of an infant son; and a pillar of the community through her teaching and her role as a founder of Girls Rock Camp.
If Hit So Hard subverts the rockumentary format by shuffling the sequence a bit, The Punk Singer (2012) allows its subject to offer a running commentary on the narrative we’ve come to expect from these kinds of films. Compared to era-defining rock stars like Courtney Love, Bikini Kill singer and activist Kathleen Hanna is the kind of cult figure who benefits from the traditional narrative.
Hanna rose to prominence in the early ‘90s both for her music and for her role in the youth-oriented, punk-informed feminist movement riot grrrl. When mainstream publications misrepresented riot grrrl’s work, Hanna and her fellow activists called for a media blackout. This becomes a running motif throughout the film, with different interviewees describing the impact it had on riot grrrl and the effects it had on the work they did with Hanna.
Like Hit So Hard, The Punk Singer ends with Hanna in a stable place in her life—in a relationship and playing in a new band. Before the credits roll, however, Hanna talks at length about how subjectivity is baked into women’s accounts of their experiences. If one of the goals of these documentaries is to make viewers feel like they know their subjects, Hanna’s observations remind them that they only know the parts of her that fit this narrative.
Suzi Q (2020) serves a similar purpose to The Punk Singer: introducing its central figure, Suzi Quatro, to a contemporary American audience. While Quatro is a wildly successful recording artist and actress in Europe, Australia, and the UK, she’s mostly known in the States for a recurring role on the sitcom Happy Days. For many first-wave female punks, however, Quatro was the husky-voiced, leather-clad siren who inspired them to pick up guitars or drumsticks.
Director Liam Firmager depicts Quatro as a showbiz trouper who sidesteps the excesses to which many of her peers succumbed by treating her early stardom as the best job ever, and by maintaining firm boundaries between the stage and the rest of her life. Though her difficult relationship with her sisters—who formed a band with her in their teenage years—is a running theme throughout the film, Firmager follows Quatro’s lead and treats her family life as something that motivates her instead of as a source of ongoing trauma.
Like The Punk Singer, Suzi Q engages a bit with feminism. Firmager opens with a radio broadcast of Australian feminist writer Germaine Greer, and most of the interviewees who discuss Quatro’s influence are women. Unlike Kathleen Hanna, however, Quatro rejects feminism out of hand, while still expressing how thankful she is for her female fan base. The array of female musicians who attest to Quatro’s influence make the case for an alternative canon solely of female artists. Suzi Q suggests that The Runaways and the Go-Go’s might not have formed, and Talking Heads bassist Tina Weymouth might not have picked up a bass, if Quatro hadn’t blazed a trail for female rockers.
The Go-Go’s has a more insular feel. In depicting the rise and fall of the first all-female band to storm the Billboard charts with an album where they wrote all the songs and played all the instruments, director Allison Ellwood almost exclusively interviews the band and the industry figures closest to them (with Kathleen Hanna standing in for all the girls inspired by the band). The documentary serves as an introduction to the Go-Go’s for younger audiences and as a calling card for their eventual nomination into the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame.
Of all the documentaries here, The Go-Go’s is the one that most closely follows the Behind the Music template. Based on the band’s previous experience with the series, this is probably not something they’d want to hear. Ellwood and the band members foreground how the Go-Go’s learned to play their instruments and write songs, and the substance abuse that was part of the band’s first era is treated in a similarly straightforward, non-sensationalistic way as it was in Hit So Hard. Like The Punk Singer, The Go-Go’s embraces feminism, as lead singer Belinda Carlisle points out the band’s creative agency and the all-female staff for their first two albums and says “of course we were feminist!” The focus on process and the closing scenes that feature the Go-Go’s writing and recording the new original song “Club Zero” have an empowering quality that could inspire viewers to make something after the film ends.
The way these films depict women in punk (or pre-punk, in the case of Suzi Q) plays with the standard rockumentary narrative to make the case for how the genre subverted traditional gender roles. If the punk ethos can be summed up with author Simon Reynolds’ epigraph “rip it up and start again,” the format of these documentaries needs some disruption. A genre-shredding movement like punk and the female figures who challenged authority deserve a more engaging narrative than what we’ve come to expect from the standard narrative. It will be interesting to see how the narrative around female punk artists evolves with the rockumentary genre.