It’s Only Life After All
(USA, 123 min.)
Dir. Alexandria Baumbach
Programme: Premieres (World Premiere)
“Darkness has a hunger that’s insatiable,” the Indigo Girls sing. And lightness, they strum, “has a call that’s hard to hear.” The lyrics of their Grammy winning hit “Closer to Fine” admittedly mirror the stables of biographical documentary. Stories of hardship, heartache, and adversity often make for juicy drama. Audiences, critics, and fans hunger for salacious tidbits. Buoyant, feel-good elements, however, are often more difficult to appreciate since they risk echoing cliché.
One can therefore appreciate what director Alexandria Baumbach does with the Indigo Girls documentary It’s Only Life After All. The film about musicians Emily Saliers and Amy Ray hits every conventional beat for music documentaries. However, the sheer volume of music docs these days are often indistinguishable. Reviewing them can be like playing Mad Libs. When it comes to the Indigo Girls, though, It’s Only After All reminds viewers that the duo rejected formula. As two out-and-proud lesbians strumming poetically buoyant acoustic music when angry dad rock ruled the airwaves, they stood out because of the story they had to tell. The doc remains true to this spirit. It might be conventional and overlong, but there are welcome notes to be enjoyed here.
Together but Not “Together”
Baumbach (On Her Shoulders) interviews Saliers and Ray, mostly individually, in career-spanning conversations. The Indigo Girls are open, candid, and comfortable. Never ones for easy or clichéd soundbites, they’re vulnerable for Baumbach and thankfully respect the boundaries of self-congratulation and self-pity that other celebrities happily cross. The film recounts how the duo met in school in Georgia and struck up an easy friendship. Making music together, they recall, was the perfect outlet for navigating the confusion of being gay and trying to fit it.
The film draws upon a strong range of archives, including much that Ray shot herself while constantly recording everything the Indigo Girls did. Especially telling are the clips from old interviews in which journalists, mostly men, focus more on lesbianism than music. The straight interviewers can’t quite wrap their heads around the idea that Ray and Saliers are lesbians, but not together. In the contemporary interviews, the duo again clarifies the fact for laughs. Two women, even gay ones, can enjoy platonic friendship. Saliers likens them to a chemical compound that never sparked.
Baumbach smartly latches onto the role of lesbianism in the Indigo Girls’ story, though. It’s Only Life After All illustrates how the duo made notable headway as an openly queer and unabashedly feminist act. The film shows what it means to use one’s platform to create space and visibility. There are interviews with fans who credit the Indigo Girls for saving their lives. The film doesn’t get sentimental here, though, as Saliers and Ray accept the news with modesty. The credit and empower the fans for saving themselves by creating an experience and a relationship with the music.
Similarly, Baumbach considers how veering from the formula of successful music—namely, white mainstream male—prevented the Indigo Girls from greater success. In interviews old and new, Ray and Saliers navigate the charge that they made “women’s music.” They note that Indigo Girls’ songs resonate with men. Even during shoots for the documentary, a male photographer tells Saliers and Ray that he fell in love to their music. Gay men join women of all orientations to salute the Girls in the film’s fan testimonials. It’s Only Life After All unpacks the lyrics that empowered fans with open metaphors, images of faith, and mellow vibes.
Everyone’s a Critic
The film’s strongest sequence, however, sees Baumbach hand Saliers and Ray a copy of a spectacularly bad review. The singers read from Jon Pareles’ scathing pan of their performance in the New York Times. It’s a masterfully catty review that still has an impact on them, especially Ray. Pareles praises their harmony in one phrase only to twist the sentence into a dig. He chides Ray’s “exaggerated ardency” and “stagy self-congratulatory gestures.” He calls the Indigo Girls pretentious. Pareles ends the review, finally, with a revealing kicker that bemoans an “impenetrable layer of flowery bad poetry.”
Saliers and Ray, however, are good sports about the exercise. They admit that their concerts had elements of pretension, like when they read Pareles’ review onstage. Ray acknowledges the speed at which she becomes angry while performing. Archival clips of the singer strummer so madly that she breaks guitar strings agree.
However, It’s Only Life After All hones into the blatant sexism of Pareles’ review. No critic ever chides a male performer for feeling his own music passionately and energetically. The “flowery bad poetry,” meanwhile, offers thinly veiled mansplaining for “girly metaphors.”
The words of the review neighbour a montage of reviews of the Indigo Girls’ music. They’re all by men. White men, to be exact. The film asks how anyone gets a fair shake to open up the possibilities for popular art when critics draw from a mostly homogenous perspective. This sequence raises important questions of gatekeeping, an irony that isn’t lost on this white guy reviewing the movie.
Saliers and Ray take the issue of gatekeeping to heart, too. It’s Only Life After All follows their activism as they put their platform to use. Baumbach weaves their work with Indigenous activist Winona LaDuke into the story. The singers acknowledge how they favoured easy environmentalism when it was trendy, but learned to consider factors of racism and colonialism. Through this story, the film segues somewhat clunkily into accounts of allyship and accountability. It inevitably leads to the events of 2020 and online activist efforts amid COVID and BLM. At this point, however, the film loses steam as Baumbach tries to account for too much and hit every beat.
Activism is the beating heart of the story, though, as interviews constantly circle back to feminism and lesbianism. The film credits the Indigo Girls for being open at a time when negative news, especially as relates to the AIDS crisis, overwhelmed stories of the LGBTQ+ community. There’s also a strong intergenerational element to It’s Only Life After All as the singers share what they learn young people. Ray imparts her complicated relationship with gender identity in an interview. Saliers comes out as queer and admits that she feels sexual but not romantic attraction towards men.
There’s also a poignant thread that observes the singers’ new role as mothers. Saliers has an emotional account of having to adopt her own daughter. Ray, meanwhile, shares that other parents won’t let their kids play with her kids when they learn she’s gay.
It’s Only Life After All therefore leaves few stories untold in the Indigo Girls’ saga. (Although there are doubtlessly others.) The film might do their history better justice with a tighter cut, but one also can’t help but find any petals of flowery poetry refreshing.