Elevate Difference

Radical Act

Tex Clark made the documentary Radical Act in 1995. It was originally intended as a snapshot of the rise of cisgender female involvement in indie rock following riot grrrl's and queercore's impact, particularly amongst lesbians and feminist women. After over a decade, Million Movies a Minute is officially releasing it this month.

Dedicated to slain Gits' front woman Mia Zapata and opening with Tribe 8's "Manipulate," which mocks at the Utopian aphorisms of 70s-era lesbian separatist women's music, Radical Act serves as a time capsule for the role women played in underground music during the mid-90s. Despite Million Movies founder Erin Donovan's claim that the documentary captures how much has changed within the fifteen-year interval, it's also a timely meditation on how female musicians' relationships to the recording industry are informed by feminist politics. In under forty-five minutes, Radical Act succinctly dialogues varying experiences and opinions of musicians like Gretchen Phillips, Vicky Starr, Kay Turner, Kim Colletta, Toshi Reagon (the lone woman of color featured), and Meg Hentges across topics like initial motivations, band formation, gender performance, sexual politics, sexist assumptions about female musicians, and the degrees to which women's art can make a cultural impact.

Upon first viewing, the documentary suffers a few obvious handicaps. For one, music consumption changed considerably in the wake of digital intervention and the collapse of the recording industry. Also, independent music already fraternized with major labels at this point, making above- and below-ground distinctions almost impossible to parse in the coming decade. In terms of exposition, Clark strings together a series of talking head segments that sacrifice explication. As a result, the documentary makes no effort to contextualize the subjects' contributions to their respective scenes or their larger cultural significance. While I imagine this was either the result of budgetary limitations or an attempt against meddling with subjects' words, it proves to be a barrier. Furthermore, apart from Bikini Kill co-founder Kathleen Hanna and Rock She Wrote co-editor Evelyn McDonnell, a number of profiled women only achieved minor commercial success or never rose above cultural obscurity, potentially alienating viewers who never listened to Sincola, Vitapup, Girls in the Nose, or God Is My Co-Pilot.

With a supposed '90s revival in full swing, my hope is that folks believe much of these artists' oeuvre merit discovery or historical revision. This is due, in part, because one interviewee is Sincola drummer Terri Lord, whose professional contributions to Austin's Girls Rock Camp—a branch of the nonprofit organization for which I volunteer—cannot be overstated. Past this, many of the points raised continue to hold relevance.

As riot grrrl's revolutionary aspirations still charge the air, a lot of big ideas are bandied about here. Reagon asserts that the music industry is a capitalist business, and thus dependent on the interrelated nature of racism and patriarchy, which Starr believes could allay a concerted effort from women to form record labels. Hanna discusses her attempts to blur pleasure and politics in an effort to make activism fun. Starr and Phillips debate the impact of queer visibility amongst pop stars like kd lang and Melissa Etheridge, but also advocate personal value in staying underground. I also appreciate the candid comments about what or who drew them to rock music, as well as their defiance toward expectations of what instruments they should play (I don't play bass!), their proficiency as musicians, and the performance styles they adopt.

Radical Act proves itself a purposeful documentary that successfully bridged a cross-section of female artists who speak of their times. I hope with time it unfolds as a dialogue current artists could join in on at any point. I can only imagine what Beth Ditto could contribute to this conversation.

Written by: Alyx Vesey, September 17th 2010