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Misfits, Rockers & Riot Grrrls: 6 Essential Female-Charged Music Docs

Misfits, Rockers & Riot Grrrls: 6 Essential Female-Charged Music Docs

The Punk Singer” (2013)

Certain to satisfy feminists, music fans and moshers alike, “The Punk Singer” gives the seminal frontwoman of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre her day, chronicling the revolutionary misfit Kathleen Hanna whose musical projects, poetry and activism helped to kickstart the Riot Grrrl movement. Helmed by first-time feature director Sini Anderson, the film features interviews with many popular musicians and feminist figures, including Kim Gordon and Tavi Gevinson, and follows Hanna’s career from her beginnings as a spoken word poet to full-blown rock star. From her work with Le Tigre and Bikini Kill to her solo project Julie Ruin, “The Punk Singer” provides an intimate look at Hanna’s troubled childhood and medical complications amongst the start of the Riot Grrrl movement. Featuring healthy doses of live performance footage from the vocal powerhouse and insight into Hanna’s life beyond her musical works, “The Punk Singer” is an indispensable look at one of the most important moments of the ’90s, where feminism met punk with satisfyingly radical results. 

READ MORE: Watch: Rock Out With Janis Joplin in Soaring ‘Janis: Little Girl Blue’ Trailer

Amy” (2015)

Asif Kapadia’s devastating look at the early loss of Amy Winehouse is a dedicated and careful contemplation of one of music’s brightest stars, from her pre-professional roots to her highly public spiral. Cobbling together a film as beautifully messy as its protagonist, Kapadia combines audio interviews with archival footage to uncover the “real” Amy behind her suffocating star persona. But what begins as a loving tribute to a fallen icon slowly morphs into a horrifying display of high exposure and brokenness, as Kapadia uncovers the small cracks in Winehouse’s protective layers spreading unrelentingly outwards. Much like Winehouse’s own life, Kapadia’s tribute is both shattering and beautiful, and though Winehouse certainly deserved more than what life handed to her, Kapadia’s beautiful and faithful tribute to Winehouse’s short life seems to be a fitting tribute to a star who left us far too young. 

Patti Smith: Dream of Life” (2008)

An intimate portrait of the interdisciplinary artist whose delicate essence lies in stark contrast to her intensity on stage, documentarian Steven Sebring brings a refreshing vision of the iconoclastic Patti Smith to the screen. Helping to create the prototypical image of the female rocker, Smith was radically androgynous with an attitude to match her stylishly disheveled look. Paying close attention to Smith’s work as a visual artist and poet beyond her musical career, “Dream of Life” humanizes the otherwise untouchable artist, tracing her beginnings in a humble working-class neighborhood before chronicling her slow adjustment to the bohemian lower Manhattan. Unafraid to delve into the many tragedies of Smith’s life, including the devastating loss of her friend and lover Robert Mapplethorpe, “Dream of Life” provides an intensely confessional look into the artist’s wildly fascinating life and artistic vision. 

Hit So Hard” (2011)

Though Patty Schemel is hardly the most talked about member of Hole, P David Eversole gives the band’s drummer time in the spotlight, following her work with the band and her life after its dissolution. After an early tragedy hit the members of Hole, many members, including Schemel and Courtney Love, turned to heroin. But when what was meant to dull pain became a wound of its own, Schemel was replaced by a different drummer, relegating her to the streets and causing her to fall deeper into her addiction. Stitched together from recovered Hi8 video footage Schemel took during the promotion of the band’s second album and interviews with members of the band and close friends, “Hit So Hard” follows Schemel’s campaign of personal growth and rehabilitation, serving as a heartfelt and understanding look at addiction, loss and fame. 

“What Happened, Miss Simone?” (2015)

Following the legendary “High Priestess of Soul,” director Liz Garbus brings viewers a documentary on the singular talent, trailing the incredible musician through her humble beginnings to the height of her fame. “What Happened, Miss Simone?” follows Nina Simone, the rogue songstress who garnered a hard-won place in history despite being rejected from traditional music schooling. Forever encumbered by difficulties inside of her life and out of it, the revolutionary musician suffered spousal abuse, manic depression and intense exhaustion at the hands of her music career and racial discrimination in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement. An astonishing, devastating and always bewitching look at the enduring musician, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” attempts to answer that deceptively simple question with a generous and aching heart. 

“Edgeplay: A Film About the Runaways” (2005)

Following six girls too young to drink but old enough for drugs and rock n’ roll, “Edgeplay” is the Runaways’ ex-member Vicki Tischler-Blue’s (then just Vicki Blue) attempt to capture the girls’ experience during the Runaways and after, following the downward spirals and eventual recoveries of the members. Cherie Currie and Sandy West share some of the most difficult stories, their intimate confessionals pricking with the sharpness of loss. Although Joan Jett only appears in archival footage, her presence is felt just the same. Tischler-Blue’s imaginative and personal approach to the rock doc is both disturbing and cathartic, purposely avoiding easy solutions and allowing each of the women to reconcile their colored past with their now-informed present. 

READ MORE: Rock On: ‘Hit So Hard’ Filmmakers Name Their Top 10 Music Docs of All Time

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