SXSW Film Review: It's Only Life After All
Indie folk legends Indigo Girls as warm and humble rock stars
By Katherine McNevins,
10:55AM, Wed. Mar. 15, 2023
In the SXSW documentary It’s Only Life After All, Emily Saliers and Amy Ray of indie folk rockers Indigo Girls convey what they want the audience to experience from their music: self-esteem, a shared experience, and healing, likening it almost to a warm hug from a loved one. And that’s exactly what the film provides.
Director Alexandria Bombach’s last two documentaries, powerful refugee tale On Her Shoulders and warzone portrait Frame by Frame, also focused on strong women, telling stories of thriving amidst oppression and overcoming incredible obstacles. This latest project, which premiered at Sundance, does the same with the musical duo.
The pair's career and friendship spans four decades, starting in grade school, and is still vibrant today. Their story is told chronologically starting in the early Eighties, with present-day interviews interspersed with archival footage – Amy faithfully documented their lives on tape – and there are treasures from the early days like a 1981 practice on cassette and video from shows at Little Five Points Pub, where mentor John Blizzard gave them a start. Their network TV debut performance of “Closer to Fine” on Late Night With David Letterman in 1989 was electrifying to see on the big screen; the doc takes its name from a line in the song. Musicians will love seeing recording studio footage and scenes of the duo discussing what to put on the evening’s set list, which are moments that give insight into their relationship and personalities as well.
Amy comes across as remarkably frank and self-aware, while Emily is gentler in her approach but no less honest. They’re both outrageously funny and can make you laugh as soon as bring a tear to your eye, which is no real surprise from a pair of stellar songwriters, and it makes them excellent documentary subjects. They’re willing to revisit cringey moments and own up to mistakes, starkly confronting an especially harsh album review and a couple of songs they look back on not-so-fondly with grace and humor, which only makes them more endearing.
A refrain of “Indigo Girls saved my life” is heard throughout, with fans tearfully and joyfully relating how the Girls got them through hard times, and it’s not just through their music that they’ve changed lives. Environmental and social justice activism is front and center for the duo, and the film chronicles important work with Winona LaDuke, an Indigenous activist they’ve worked with on grassroots issues for 30 years through their organization Honor the Earth, and who made them realize their early activism had been more “middle-class white girl stuff,” as Amy put it in her candid way.
The members of Indigo Girls have faced misogyny and homophobia their entire lives. It’s a thread throughout It’s Only Life After All, and is such an important part of the story: They discuss gender dysphoria, sexual and gender identity, coming out, gay-bashing, the difficulty of being marketed as a band because they didn’t fit in certain boxes, and not being believed by male sound techs when they knew what they were talking about. Emily said, “It was worth it to be out, but it stunted our career.” Amy spoke about working with younger bands like the Butchies, and it’s really something to see an icon like Amy Ray talk about being inspired by and learning from the next generation.
Emily tells a makeup artist at one point as she’s having her face done, “You’re the kind of person I’d like to have coffee with,” saying that the artist seems kind, and kindness is important. And that’s how Indigo Girls make the audience feel; you just want to hang out with them more. As the film progresses, you might find yourself kind of sad when it gets to the 2020s, because you know your time with them, for now, is drawing to a close.
It's Only Life After All
Festival Favorites, Texas PremiereThu 16, 8:45pm, Alamo Lamar E
Sat 18, 3:15pm, Satellite Venue: AFS Cinema
Featured Session:Music and a Movement: A Conversation with the Indigo Girls and Winona LaDukeAvailable online
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SXSW 2023, SXSW Film 2023, It's Only Life After All