From MySpace to Kickstarter, Kate Nash has harnessed the power of the people to revitalise the music scene. Kate Nash: Underestimate the Girl charts the rocky journey of the English singer who refuses to conform to convenient labels. Even the catchall “female artist” tag doesn’t rock her world, as she boldly noted when accepting the prize for Best Female Artists at the Brit Awards. “Female is not a genre,” she challenged the industry. This doc by Amy Goldstein shares the price that Nash paid for defying the mould, but also the rewards she found by staying true to her artistic integrity.
The film quickly recaps Nash’s rise that was facilitated by platforms like MySpace long before social media was a springboard to success. With upbeat songs that found a groove between riot grrl rock and the millennial pop stylings of singers like Avril Lavigne and Amy Winehouse, Nash’s music found modest success for fans who outgrew the girl bands of the late 1990s. However, Underestimate the Girl shows how the overwhelmingly male-dominated music industry didn’t know what to do with an artist who felt like Old Spice’s iconoclastic sister. Nash tells how all went well until Fiction Records abruptly dumped her in 2010 following the disappointing sales of her second album.
As Nash tries to rebound from a relatively meteoric rise and fall, her story reflects the music industry’s aversion to risk-takers and innovators. It’s also illustrates the industry’s struggle to keep pace with audience demands, as Nash’s own social media driven success shows an appetite for her work—but not necessarily an interest in paying for it in the fashion that record labels wanted. Underestimate the Girl essentially offers two complementary tales in one doc as Goldstein follows Nash to California where she attempts to revive her career. She makes new music and finds innovative ways to connect with brands to expand her reach, like co-hosting a shopping channel for geeks and performing an acoustic set at a start-up. The film shows how one always needs to be hustling to make it in the entertainment industry, especially if one doesn’t want to follow the tired (and unreliable) formula for success.
The other tale that weaves throughout Underestimate the Girl is one about the inherent misogyny of the industry. Many of the challenges Kate encounters are from producers and executives who struggle to situate her voice within their brands and objectives. She generally seems to be making progress until the doc brings a surprising twist: her manager, Gary Marella, has been using her credit cards to pay for his wedding. Nash quickly hits rock bottom again as the debts, legal headaches, and loss of professional management derail her plans and leave her bordering upon penniless. She nearly loses her beloved dog before packing up her few remaining belongings and heading home to her parents. A Netflix series and a Kickstarter campaign later, however, and Nash finds an overdue rebound by refusing to put a price on her voice.
Underestimate the Girl bridges these verité-style scenes of Nash’s ups and downs with energetic concert numbers. Nash is in her element voicing poetry, angst, and rage in alternative tracks. She’s a born performer as these concert segments show an artist showcasing the power of her authentic voice. Admittedly, the amped-up concert scenes clash starkly with the rawer behind-the-scenes verité, particularly the notably uneven sound levels, but the doc’s two-pronged approach accentuates Nash’s plight. There’s the music scene that audiences see—bright lights, concert halls, and screaming fans—and the one that artists see: grit and struggle.
Kate Nash: Underestimate the Girl is now in digital release.