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Girls Rock!: Keeping the Beat for Aspiring Female Musicians

by Jessica Mosby

The experiences and emotions of young American girls are much more complicated, and even tragic, than most people, particularly men, would assume. Girls as young as eight are regularly confronting low self-esteem, eating disorders, broken families, peer rejection, drug addiction, and the eternal search of finding their place in an unforgiving world. But every summer girls from 8 to 18 find a reprieve from their daily struggles for one week at a truly original venue: Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls!

Girls Rock!, a new 90-minute film by Arne Johnson and Shane King currently showing in theatres across the country, follows a group of campers as they attend the one-week music camp in Portland, Oregon during the summer of 2005. But the film is more than your average enjoyable albeit shallow music documentary: while the film features the obligatory footage of girls uninhibitedly rocking out, it also depicts a community of strong female role models helping younger girls build the self-esteem and confidence to buck mainstream expectations and express themselves.

At the camp, which was founded in 2001, young female musicians form a band with campmates and, after one week of practice, perform an original song in front of 750 fans. Each band has an adult musician manager, but instead of bossing the girls around, the managers consider themselves teachers who are there to share their talents. When the girls aren’t rehearsing, they take self-defense classes where they practice yelling “no” while kicking someone, and watch established all-female bands perform free concerts in the cafeteria during lunch. In essence, the camp is a utopia for girls who love music.

Johnson and King focus on four girls of varying ages, backgrounds, and musical experience who are all attending the camp for the first time: Laura, Amelia, Palace, and Misty. Even though we live in a culture saturated with reality television, where regular people confessing rather regular emotions on film is nothing ground-breaking, each of the girls featured are surprisingly interesting; I never thought I would find the musings of an eight year old simultaneously captivating and heart-breaking.

Everyone who sees the film will be genuinely affected when Laura, a teenage death metal-loving vocalist, laments on the first day of camp, that “maybe I should try to fit in and shut my big mouth.” And one cannot help recalling their own adolescent rejections when Amelia – a high-strung and wild-eyed eight year old guitar player with a truly individualistic and creative personality – describes recently being rejected by all of her school friends. But even peer rejection fails to keep Amelia from writing original noise rock songs, such as “How to Tune a Taco,” inspired by her pet Chihuahua and muse Pippi.

Of the four girls profiled, Palace is arguably the breakout star. The petite seven year old is pictured on the film’s poster snarling at the camera, her flaming red hair tamed by braids. When she is introduced on film, Palace’s panache, natural talent, and mature sense of style are rather enviable, but as the film progresses you learn that, for someone so young, she has a lot of anxiety and anger. To the camp’s credit, once Palace’s behavior toward her bandmates becomes problematic, the Drama Trauma team diffuses the situation without making her feel badly – through conflict resolution they emphasize working together, not blaming one another.

Attending rock ‘n’ roll camp assumes a certain affluence, or at least awareness on the part of the parents. Palace, for instance, has a very pretty, stylish mother who works in the fashion industry, and they live in a mid-century modern home ripped from the pages of Dwell magazine.

But Misty, the fourth girl profiled in the film, is not a stereotypically hip Pacific Northwesterner. A 17 year old native of Beaverton, Oregon, Misty grew up in foster and group homes due to her parents’ drug and mental health problems. Misty has an air of world weariness and a somewhat abrasive personality that doesn’t endear her to her bandmates; her provocative clothes and pierced eyebrow do not jive with the ironic t-shirts favored by other campers. Prior to attending the camp, she spent ten months in a lockdown facility for troubled youth and recently overcame a methamphetamine addiction; for her the camp is about more than learning how to play the bass – it is really a means for her to start a new life.

With a mainstream musical culture of sugary pop starlets who are valued for being attractive and not necessarily talented, the female rockers – such as Carrie Brownstein from the groundbreaking all-female band Sleater-Kinney and Beth Ditto from the Gossip – who work as counselors at the camp are a much-needed source of counter-culture values and mentorship. As sassy Ditto tells the campers while proudly displaying her bicep tattoo, “We sweat…You’re not going to look like a princess at all times – unless you want to.”

While I’ve followed the extensive press about Girls Rock!, I was curious to find out about the film and the filmmakers, particularly why they chose to profile Laura, Amelia, Misty, and Palace. During a candid interview conducted via email, Producer/Co-Director Arne Johnson articulately describes his experience making the film and why some of the negative reviews have surprised him (he is a former movie critic) and revealed startling differences in the ways male and female film reviewers have reacted to the film.

I read on the back story portion of the website that the camp was leery of you filming, but how did the girls (particularly the four profiled) react? Did they want to be on camera?

Well, some of the girls we originally met and interviewed (we talked to about 25 girls before the camp started) were really uncomfortable in front of the camera, but we never insisted. There were plenty of interesting girls there, and we didn’t want to make them have a miserable experience at camp. That was sacrosanct to us. The four girls we ended up focusing on were comfortable with the camera to varying degrees, but the baseline was that they were all ok with it and able to be natural most of the time when we were around. Some of them, as you can see in the movie, clearly enjoyed it at times.

Why did you choose to profile Laura, Misty, Amelia, and Palace?

We spent a lot of time interviewing girls ahead of time, and learned a lot about why girls were coming to rock camp – that for some it was all about the music, but for many there was something else that was really important. Some parents described the camp as “giving them back their daughter.” So we focused on girls who were going for the first time, and also who were able to speak to the range of issues that came up with all the girls we interviewed.

As the film progresses you really see different (and very sad) sides to the Laura, Misty, Amelia, and Palace. Did the girls take a while to open up?

Definitely. But camp had more to do with that than us, I think. They became so comfortable in that atmosphere that they began showing sides of themselves that had probably remained hidden. Laura admitting to hating herself, for instance. The face she showed us when we first met her was happily articulate, very friendly, [and] extroverted. But at the camp she was able to talk more about what troubled her. And then when we asked her about that stuff, I think she was more comfortable being vulnerable because the camp had shown [her] that being herself could be rewarded.

When you started making the film did you realize that the camp was about more than just music? Did you have any idea about the issues facing the girls?

We definitely had a vague sense that something else was going on. Early on, Shane shot some video of a concert featuring a band made up of girls [ages] 10-12 who’d been to the camp, and found it to be very emotional. Grown women around him were crying during “Keep on Rocking in the Free World.” In many ways, the rest of the year was spent finding out why girls playing electric guitars was so potent. What we discovered, we knew about in broad outlines, but only as an intellectual argument, or as a part of being pop culture savvy. What we experienced interviewing these girls was the very real, even physical effect these issues were having on girls and women. As two guys who considered ourselves hip to women’s issues, it was often startling and upsetting how much we’d been missing.

I was very upset by how the girls discussed their low self-esteem. Did this surprise you? Was this characteristic of other girls at the camp?

It was both surprising and upsetting. We really cared about these girls, and thought they were amazing and smart and funny and creative, and the idea that they would find it hard to celebrate those things about themselves hurt quite a bit. I think we were most surprised at how little it mattered what background the girls came from, no matter how supportive their parents or culturally diverse their surroundings, most of the girls had some struggle with self-esteem. Not every girl spoke directly to self-esteem, but you could see by how they responded to the camp that they weren’t spending a lot of time with people applauding their difference and originality.

How has the film been received?

Mostly it’s been fantastic. We get emails all the time from folks who tell us they cried through the whole movie, and the press has mostly been good. There’s definitely a troubling thread of some reviewers (mostly guys) who don’t seem to think [anything too] compelling is going on with the girls – perhaps some men can’t see the drama in the acute way that women can, but otherwise people have been really positive. Lord knows before I made this film, I can’t say I would’ve seen the coded anguish in a lot of the scenes…and I was a movie reviewer! Some of the most important scenes in the film were put there because some woman we were working with visibly winced or had an emotional reaction and told us why it was so important. That’s not to say men never get it, because many of the emails and great reviews we’ve gotten have been from men.

How have people profiled in the film reacted?

They are all enjoying it quite a bit, I think! There’s definitely some embarrassment I think any kid feels about who they were three years ago, but overall they seem to be having fun. Laura is a big supporter of the film, is always talking it up, but won’t see it!
About the Author
Jessica Mosby is a writer and critic living in Berkeley, California. In the rare moments when she’s not traveling across the United States for work, Jessica enjoys listening to public radio, buying organic food at local farmers markets, trolling junk stores, and collecting owl-themed tchotchke.

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