Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Documentary Review: Here to be Heard – The Story of the Slits

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2018
Images from the Internet

Here to be Heard: The Story of the Slits
Written, photographed, directed and edited by William E. Badgley
Head Gear Films / Molasses Manifesto /
Moviehouse Entertainment / MVD Entertainment Group
86 minutes, 2017

Long before there was Pussy Riot in Russia, there was the British band, the Slits. The Spice Girls may have been cutesy talking about “Girl Power,” but it was the sheer force of art-meets-anger that fueled the members of the British punk outfit, the Slits. Even before there was the raucous and sexualized-yet-strong-female-focused riot grrrls groups like Hole, there was the Slits.

As with most bands, there were some personnel changes in the Slits, especially as they rose out of the notorious group Flowers of Romance, but they definitely started off strong more because of the timing of their emergence than their musical acumen. Please note that this is not any kind of insult, as there were a lot of great bands back then where were musically miniscule (e.g., most British punk groups at the time), but were both culturally important and enjoyable to those in the right frame of mind (e.g., and again, most British punk groups at the time).

Unlike in much of the US press, the British music press quickly joined the fray and focused on the punk scene, be it negative or positive (an example of the latter being Caroline Coon). With Palmolive, who was the Slits’ initiator and bassist at the time, having been a flat mate of Woody of the underrated 101ers – who became Joe Strummer – it is no surprise they joined the early “White Riot” tour of the Clash (when the Clash still mattered, i.e., pre-Sandinista; but I digress…).

Like most biographical films about bands, there’s a heavy dose of chronology, but this one takes a wise turn. It starts and continues with the theme or spine of original bassist Tessa Pollitt going through her band scrapbook, and using that as a motif to launch into both events in the Slits trajectory, and also philosophical “rear view mirror” looking at the cultural environment into which the group was immersed.

The obvious road taken, though not the only one, is addressing the Feminist standpoint, which I actually agree with: I remember the time in the 1970s when even male musicians I liked were not kind to women (or other races), such as Johnny Thunders’ song “Who Needs Girls.” While there actually were female members in some of the early punk bands (Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads, for example), it was rare to find them as in-your-face as they were in the British punk scene. That they seemed to mostly disappear during the New Romantics ‘80s is another story, but for this nascent scene, the Slits were a powerful role model that gave rise to many others, such as the Raincoats, X-Ray Specs, and arguably Siouxie and the Banshees (also from remnants of Flowers of Romance), who followed a more rhythmically bottom-driven sound.

It was important than Don Letts (who is understatedly described as merely “filmmaker” here) lends his voice, as he was such a strong influence on the Slits members’ – and especially Ari Up’s – musical influence with his spinning of reggae at the clubs in London in the mid-to-late 1970s, introducing the sound to the likes of the Clash, Stiff Little Fingers, and the Pistols (Lydon’s PiL would be bent in that direction). Letts impact led the Slits to arguable create their own subgenre, punk worldbeat, or perhaps atonal worldbeat. They definitely shattered both the punk and worldbeat stereotypes by synergistically combining them into this new hybrid sound, for which they definitely deserve the credit.

The Slits also introduced musicians who would go on to their own heightened careers that arguably superseded theirs, such as Neneh Cherry and Budgie (Peter Clarke), one of their drummers who performed on their first LP Cut, who went on to play for Siouxie and the Banshees.

What I liked about the interviews here is that nearly everyone had a direct connection to the band, rather than second-hand press. The one possible exception is Vivien Goldman, who is described as “New York University’s punk professor” (first of all, she’s British, so she may have actually been there to see the band, but it’s not clear; second, she is not “the” punk professor there, as I know others, such as Dr. Brian Cogan, who wrote The Encyclopedia of Punk Rock, but I digress again…).

One person who is talked about only momentarily is Ari’s mother, Nora Forster, who was one of their later managers (and who is credited here offhandedly as part of the reason they initially broke up), and famously married the much younger John Lydon in 1979 (they are still wed). What surprises me, though, is that neither Nora nor Lydon are part of the interviews presented. But on the other hand, from what I’ve seen of Lydon and the fact that they are raising Ari’s three kids, perhaps they didn’t want to be involved.

Before she passed on in 2010 at age 46 of breast cancer, Ari stated she wanted this documentary completed, and both Tessa and Viv were strong proponents of her wishes being fulfilled. That being said, nearly all members of the band through its original run in 1976 through 1982, and then it’s revival with Ari and Tessa being the only original members from 2005 to 2010, are represented here, including Budgie.

One of the best thing about this film is how well it mixes newer footage and interviews with archival ones of the band both on stage and off, often on tour. It’s beautifully seamless and well handled.

The documentary focuses a lot on Ari’s nonconventional attitudes and behavior, and how the other members were drawn into that bright light; it shifts back and forth between what good friends they all were to how they would fight a lot on the road. The footage of the tours, which were recorded for a film they were going to make at Ari’s insistence, however, definitely show camaraderie.

While there are some holes in the history (e.g., Ari reportedly refusing chemo because she would lose her hair, and what some of the later-version Slits members are currently doing as this seems to focus more on the original line-up), this is still extremely well done at capturing what the band was trying to do, what they achieved, and a bit of their legacy (although this is another area I would have liked to see expressed more).

And to complete the first paragraph, I feel compelled to posit: before there was all that was the Slits, there was the boom boom of the proto-punk Shangri-Las from Long Island, New Yawk. I’m just sayin’…

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