Avanti Media Fiction / Hot Docs

Teaches of Peaches Review: She’s Still Ripe

Hot Docs/CUFF/DOXA 2024

7 mins read

Teaches of Peaches
(Germany, 102 min.)
Dir. Philipp Fussenegger and Judy Landkammer
Programme: Pop/Life


Her name may be Peaches, but don’t call her the pits. Peaches, née Merrill Nisker, remains a singular voice in music. The Canadian artist, known for her unclassifiable sound, tastes as ripe as ever.

This documentary follows her on the 2022 tour to mark the anniversary of her 2000 studio album The Teaches of Peaches. Two decades on, Peaches still commands a crowd. Moreover, her uniqueness and stereotype shattering play on gender and sexuality continue to resonate with an audience that’s more open to sexual fluidity than the relatively tight-buttoned Abercrombie and Fitch crowd of the turn of the Millennium. This invigoratingly punk documentary illustrates what it means to stay fresh and authentic in a field that continually rewards mediocrity.

Directors Philipp Fussenegger and Judy Landkammer go behind the scenes with Peaches as she readies her tour. Commanding a troupe of younger dancers, musicians, and performers who embrace her desire to be daring, the rehearsal scenes immediately illustrate how Peaches’ music continues to speak to audiences. The footage, capturing the artists bringing the songs to life, pops with a sense of immediacy. It’s not a throwback, but rather a portrait of the artist firmly in the present tense.

In rehearsals, Peaches is goofy as ever. She whips around in bizarre avant-garde costumes that offer layers of boobs—breasts, upon breasts, upon breasts—and untamed hair as wig pieces contrast with her prosthetic bosoms to create a strange interplay between desire and revulsion. She’s the queer icon that audiences know and love.

Interviews with Peaches situate her present tour with her origin story. There are tales of her early days with the band called The Shit. She and fellow musician Chilly Gonzales, who looks as if he stepped out of the shower and straight into the interview, tell of the electrifying freedom of making weird, angry, sexually charged music. Gonzales, joint in hand, delivers recollections that resemble performance art. His talking points are humorous tidbits that evoke the uniqueness of The Shit. In Berlin, Peaches and Gonzales recall, they found their tribe. The film frequently credits the openness of Europe’s music scene, particularly Berlin’s, as key to Peaches’ evolution.

The film shows how Peaches nevertheless evolved amid gunk and grime in dumpy Toronto. Her old roommate Leslie Feist joins the party and recalls their days of slumming it in a crappy Queen West apartment, playing music with the cockroaches and rats, as well as experimenting with video while creating new sounds. Teaches of Peaches situates the artist within the evolving electronica scene of the 1990s as musicians discovered how to imagine the sound to get beyond the thin synthetic innovations of the 1980s. Unlike some of her predecessors, Peaches’ music doesn’t feel dated.

The film illustrates how, in part, Peaches’ freshness came through her grungy laissez-faire attitude that didn’t give a toot about studio standards. She recalls in an interview how her breakthrough song, “Fuck the Pain Away,” came from a single live recording at Toronto’s Rivoli bar. It lacks the polish of a studio record, but the rawness of the track makes it resonate. Teaches of Peaches similarly finds its voice as a film through the sequence of the film that really dives into “Fuck the Pain Away.” Here’s where the film finds the singularity of Peaches’ voice, music, and style. It’s edgy, defiant, and unabashed in its directness.

In the wake of a seemingly endless sea of music docs, Teaches of Peaches gamely embraces the singularity of its subject in order to stand out in the crowd. It finds the right balance between rough around the edges and artfully elevated. Cats abound in interviews, while the editing favours candid moments that sanitized, broadcast-ready music docs would leave in the edit suite.

Meanwhile, the filmmakers smartly see Peaches’ music as an opportunity to consider the currents that define the music industry. When the film looks back to the release of The Teaches of Peaches and the popularity of her single “Set It Off,” the archival footage presents a business that simply didn’t know what to do with the talent at hand. While Peaches and company acknowledge that the industry’s failure to market and support unconventional voices inevitably limited her financial success, the singer proudly owns her ability to give voice to the misfits.

When the film cuts to the present-day interviews, it shows how Peaches beat the odds. At 56, she still commands the crowd. Peaches pokes fun at her age, shimmying onto stage with a walker like an elderly lady, but then whips her top off and body surfs with the crowd. She defies age and ageism, smartly understanding younger generations and using her show, expanding its gender-fuck fluidity, to connect with audiences who embrace everything from the underground to the ballroom scene. Like the album that gives Teaches of Peaches its name, this documentary is a refreshing alternative to ho-hum convention.

Teaches of Peaches screens at Hot Docs, DOXA, and the Calgary Underground Film Festival.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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