Hot Docs

Caiti Blues Review: Portrait of a Born Performer

Hot Docs 2023

5 mins read

Caiti Blues
(France & Canada, 84 min.)
Dir. Justine Harbonnier
Programme: Canadian Spectrum


Madrid, New Mexico is a former mining town about 45 minutes south of Santa Fe with a current population of 276 people. When the demand for coal fell in the early 1900s, Madrid became deserted for decades. Then, in the 1970s, a group of artists moved in and built a new community that is a quirky stop for tourists. It’s home to 29-year-old Caiti Lord. When she originally left her home in New York for San Francisco, she didn’t expect to end up in the middle of the desert, but life had other plans.

Caiti Blues is a fly-on-the-wall documentary that follows Lord as she goes about her everyday life. She tends bar at the historic Mineshaft Tavern, occasionally performing her original songs when she isn’t working. She also hosts a weekly radio show, playing music and talking into the void about whatever’s on her mind. As political unrest, financial insecurity, and climate change loom over her, Lord does her best to find reasons to keep going.

There are people who are just born performers, lighting up the room with talent and charisma wherever they go. Lord is one of these people. And she always has been, as made evident by the home movies that are weaved through the documentary. In them, an adolescent Lord sings opera and show tunes; there are dance recitals, school plays, and improvised skits. Whether alone with the camera or in front of an applauding audience, she brims with joy and potential. When the film jumps back into current day, these tiny glimpses into Lord’s childhood leave behind a melancholic feeling of innocence lost.

Some of the most rewarding parts of this film are watching Lord perform. She is an incredibly talented musician, uninhibited and charismatic. The stage is where she is meant to be. While she has the range to sing just about anything, her own songs have a bluesy rock and roll sound. Each one is a gift to discover. When will someone get this girl into a recording studio? As soon as the credits rolled, I wished she had a record I could listen to. You’ll probably feel like that, too.

A millennial, Lord remembers watching 9/11 happen on live television when she was in elementary school. Then came the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. After that, the worst recession since the Great Depression. Then a pandemic. Her bachelor’s degree is as good as useless and she has student debt that is impossible to pay off because of accruing interest. While she doesn’t dwell on the stress of living through these events as a young person, the trickle-down effects are apparent in her day-to-day life. In a scene with her co-worker, they are candid about the difficulties of working in the service industry: low wages (they are grateful their bar pays $4/hour plus tips because the federal minimum for servers is $2.13), long hours, laborious work, and harassment from customers.

As a cinema verité portrait of real life in America, the film is built on small moments that speak volumes. Captured tenderly by Harbonnier, we bear witness to Lord’s ups and downs as it becomes impossible not to root for her. She overflows with kindness and generosity of spirit, so obviously loved by everyone in the community. With a beating heart as big as its protagonist, Caiti Blues will leave you with hope for the future and a reminder that there are still good people out there. Caiti Lord might not be famous–yet, but her impact is already felt everywhere she goes.


Caiti Blues premiered at Hot Docs 2023.

Get more coverage from this year’s festival here.

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