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Queer as Folk

Its-only-life-after-all-movie-review-indigo-girls
Michael Lavine/Courtesy of Sundance Institute

MOVIE REVIEW
It's Only Life After All (2023)

Young people seem to think the open-minded acceptance most queer people currently enjoy has always been the case, instead of the biggest cultural shift most gay people over 40 have seen in their lifetimes. Amy Ray and Emily Saliers met in elementary school in Georgia in the ’70s and admired each other all through their schooling. As teenagers, they realized they had similar interests in music and songwriting, and some time later, when they ended up at the same college, they realized that together they were something special. They both had singing and guitar talent; Emily had the knack for writing catchy songs, and Amy had the drive to make things happen. They called themselves Indigo Girls, and the rest is documentary history.

Director Alexandria Bombach does not reinvent the wheel here, but does go through Ms. Ray’s 40-year archive in order to tell the story of their joint career. The film covers their early days as the house band for a gay community center in Atlanta, the in and outs of their burgeoning success, their significant environmental activism in partnership with various indigenous organizations, up to the present moment. Both of them are lesbians; and they were among the very few celebrities to be casually out when they came to national attention, although Ms. Ray is more open about her identity than Ms. Saliers still is, or prefers to be. As a result of this calmness about themselves, their work and their selves served as a lightning rod for women and/or homosexuals in the public eye. Clips of them being spoofed on “Saturday Night Live” come after vox-pops at recent concerts of theirs, during which more than one person wells up in discussing how much they mean to them. (A similar MTV vox pop from the mid-’90s features a pre-fame but clearly recognizable Jorja Fox articulating the same.)

It’s their own story, told by themselves, but Ms. Bombach clearly had the power to shape the narrative, because she pressed them both to discuss some personal issues which add fascinating depth to their story. This inclusion, as shown at the Sundance Film Festival, was pretty clearly the cause of some angst. What Ms. Ray and Ms. Saliers have together is deeper than a marriage, because it’s based on how they work and perform together. It's obviously not always been smooth sailing, but they understood how special their connection was early on, and have maintained the pact they made to preserve it. It's not perfect – for a film which claims to want to focus on the present, a great deal of time is given to a sexist review they received in The New York Times. Their notorious Grammy loss to Milli Vanilli isn’t mentioned either.

As an alternative history of the ’80s and ’90s, this is an excellent document. As an introduction to their music, it’s a good primer; we hear all the hits, but it’s not overdone. As a case for their current importance, the movie pivots to a focus on their activism, and how they have gained recognition for the way in which they have boosted local grassroots groups, mostly led by people of color, using their name recognition to spotlight their work while not making it all about themselves. A demonstration of just how much work has been done by so many people over the years to build to where we were currently are is a pointed reminder not to take these changes for granted.

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