There’s a common refrain uttered wistfully by fans of Indigo Girls, the iconic folk rock duo that did more for lesbian visibility than anyone who came after: “Indigo Girls saved my life.” That’s not only true for queer people of a certain age, but any sensitive soul who has felt held by the tight harmonies, beautiful melodies, and poetic storytelling lyrics that came to define the Indigo Girls sound.
Taking one such lyric for its title, “It’s Only Life After All” is a sweeping and sincere documentary that tells the story of how Indigo Girls Amy Ray and Emily Saliers met, made music, and pushed and inspired each other to reach their unlikely and enduring success. Brimming with previously unseen footage and refreshingly frank interviews with the artists, it’s an adoring opus befitting two long overlooked musicians and activists.
So the film could be a little (okay, a lot) tighter — that’s only a reflection of how overdo the Indigo Girls’ flowers are. Long minimized and dismissed as “women’s music,” the gap between their cultural impact (not to mention songwriting skills) and critical recognition of their work is as long as the movie’s slapdash final chapters. Filmmaker Alexandria Bombach (“On Her Shoulders”) makes no secret of her fandom, writing in her director’s statement that she, too, was saved by Indigo Girls. Hagiography can be forgiven when it’s this deserved, but it’s hard to kill your darlings when they saved your life.
Using a trove of archival footage shot mostly by Amy on the camcorders du jour, Bombach (who edited the film as well) weaves an engaging portrait of the dynamic duo. Though they can be a bit camera shy, she is aided by their openness, typical for artists this sensitive but rare for ones this successful. In a frank appeal to the filmmaker behind the camera, Amy hopes the movie “can be about something that’s not just us.” Sometimes humble to a fault, they see their music as something outside of themselves, their instruments as channels for creativity and connection that the world needed.
Both raised in Decatur, Georgia, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers met in elementary school. Emily (the blonde one, as Tig Notaro once called her before a surprise appearance) was one year older than Amy (the brunette one), who idolized the dynamic and outgoing songwriter. Whether drawn by an unspoken queerness or the fact that they both played guitar, they began writing songs together in high school. To hear them both tell it, it was creative love at first sight, and they quickly began playing regular gigs throughout high school and college in the greater Atlanta area.
Though they both came out quite young, they never dated, much to the surprise of the press and fans. The connection was always one of deep friendship and artistic collaboration. In their solo interviews (they are the only talking heads in the film), each lays out a sincere respect for what the other brought to the table.
They are “opposites in many ways,” according to Amy, who claims Emily is the better songwriter (they always write separately). Meanwhile, Emily admired Amy for her boldness and drive. “She always seemed a step ahead in terms of evolution,” she said. “Amy was always a driving force. And I just focused on the music and tried to hold up my end of the bargain.”
It’s true that Emily wrote the band’s most beautiful hits, like “Galileo,” “Closer to Fine,” “Power of Two,” and “Love Will Come to You.” But Amy was the one pounding the proverbial pavement in those early years, booking and promoting gigs before the duo landed a manager. Early photos and interviews show Amy as a queer heartthrob, emanating a confident butch swagger and spouting queer politics in her raspy growl.
Bombach orchestrates a humorous sequence by asking them to read aloud an infamous review by New York Times music critic Jon Pareles, both groaning knowingly when they see the name. “Earnest pretentiousness has new standard-bearers,” begins the brief pan, which ends with the redundantly clunky phrase “flowery bad poetry.” They laugh in the retelling, but clearly some of the digs still sting. It’s as funny as it is poignant, the stench of a sexist male music establishment tainting what is by all accounts a massively successful career. “We were always accused of being earnest,” Emily says. “And I mean accused.”
Another arresting revelation is the way they became a running joke in pop culture. As two of the few queer women in the public eye in the late ’80s and ’90s, it was all too easy to throw in an Indigo Girls joke or don a mullet wig whenever a comedian wanted to make fun of lesbians. Indigo Girls became synonymous with lesbian and vice versa, and their mere existence was political. This also hurt their chances of getting played on the radio, though they were told it was their unique sound.
“It’s Only Life After All” paints a holistic portrait of two artists who became one, crafting a stirring collage of queer history with the engaging archival footage. But by the time Bombach gets to their parenthood journey and their (very impressive!) environmental activism, we’ve lost the plot — and the music. The decision not to interview anyone but the artists is powerful, but that leaves Pareles as the sole objective critical voice. A counterpoint from a music historian or musician highlighting their rich harmonies or placing them in context would have been far more valuable than another detour into Emily’s sobriety or Amy’s gender identity.
Emily states it plainly when she admits, “I do feel that we have been diminished by prejudice. It’s important to recognize that the homophobia stunted our career.” As they do in their music, they’ll have to say it themselves.
“It’s Only Life After All” premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.