Some of the most impactful moments in the documentary, It’s Only Life After All, a comprehensive retrospective on Atlanta-based singer-songwriters Amy Ray and Emily Saliers who continue to perform as the Indigo Girls, appear in the first third of the film. The documentary received its Sundance premiere late last week.
There are numerous fascinating clips culled from a rich treasure of home movies, cassette tape recordings and television programs that director Alexandria Bombach included in the film. The story about the Indigo Girls emerges as a valuable archive of musicians who broke industry ground in many ways but also as a platform for further study about a fresh perspective on southern history, feminism and identity in the New South.
Saliers and Ray met when they attended the same elementary school in suburban Atlanta (Decatur). During the 1970s and 1980s, the de facto description of the southern identity was white, straight, male and conservative. Bombach’s film chronicles the four decades of the Indigo Girls’ presence in the music industry and their activism in the environmental protection of Native American lands, immigration reform and their commitment to LGBTQ rights and visibility. But, the most significant takeaway might be how the Indigo Girls epitomized a new generation where the ideals of what it means to be a southerner became more fluid and multifaceted. And, it emphasized how Atlanta would become one of the most important diverse social, political and cultural hubs in the South.
Take the 1999 song Trouble. The opening lyrics are “Trouble came around here/Here in the South we fix something to eat/Steam risin’ up off the greenery/And we welcome the strangers we meet.” Near the end of the song, Rays and Saliers imagine the future: “One day the war will stop/And we’ll grow a peaceful crop/And a girl can get a wife/And we can bring you back to life.”
In It’s Life After All, Bombach covers solidly the formative years of the duo. Ray, disenchanted with the experiences of her freshman year at Vanderbilt University, muses on them in the song Nashville. But, later, Ray embraces her southern identity, particularly in the song Become You, which she confronts on a personal level the values of the confederacy her Georgia neighbors believe. Instead of staying silent or being frustrated in the entrenched antagonism against civil rights, the Indigo Girls blazed enlightened ways for feeling a new sense of Southern pride, particularly in their social and political activism.
It was refreshing to see the formative coordinates that not only defined the Indigo Girls but also represented subtle differences between the two artists. Saliers was a transplant to the South, who was born in New Haven, Connecticut, while her father was a Yale graduate student majoring in theology. They moved to Decatur when Saliers was 10 years old and her father was hired as a professor at Emory University. Ray, a year younger than Saliers, was born in Atlanta and is proud of her southern heritage which has spanned at least five generations. Her father was a doctor who also had served in the U.S. Navy.
It was in high school when the duo began collaborating on writing songs. Ray was still a high school senior when Saliers started her freshman year at Tulane University. While Saliers had hopes of becoming an English teacher, she left Tulane after two years — a combination of homesickness and transforming episodes in her self-identity being the reasons for deciding to return to Atlanta. Meanwhile, in her own dissatisfaction with college at Vanderbilt, where she regularly encountered homophobia, Ray came out as gay and had her first romantic relationship with a woman who was a student at the University of Georgia.
Perhaps the fondest memories Ray and Saliers share in the film are their performances at the Little Five Points Pub in Atlanta, which became the launching ground for their career and fame. These recollections reinforce the emergence of a new southern identity of pride, advocacy and enlightenment.
The film attempts to cover a vast sprawling amount of territory in the Indigo Girls chronicle but it is definitely the first third that anchors what should be the most significant epiphany explaining what Ray and Saliers have accomplished as musicians and as activists.
An interesting sidebar in the film deals with the inequities that remain in the business realm of the music industry and the critics and gatekeepers of the trends and aesthetics featured in media and promotion. As both artists now approach the age of 60, they are aware of the strikes against them in the music business. They are aging women who are gay and proud of their political activism. There is a passing reference to the time they were featured in Rolling Stone magazine which attempts to soften and mute their political bite, unlike bands such as Rage Against The Machine, whose members are heralded for their sociopolitical confrontations. And, there is a longer-than-needed scene where the two recall and distill a New York Times review by Jon Pareles (who described their music and performance as pretentious, filled with self-congratulatory gestures and bad poetry). Or, a clip from a Saturday Night Live skit parodying the duo, which the musicians say would have been more tolerable if they had been actually invited to be the musical guest on the show.
Nevertheless, Bombach’s film is valuable to the process of cultivating a comprehensive focus in the historiography about the history of rock and popular music. With their longevity and their multifaceted impact in artistic, sociocultural and sociopolitical terms, the Indigo Girls will always be an important case study for how artists can represent and signal the evolution of community and regional identities.
Bombach last appeared at Sundance in 2018 with On Her Shoulders. It’s Only Life After All was financed by Impact Partners, with Geralyn Dreyfous, Utah Film Center co-founder and board chair, as executive producer.
For more information about festival screenings and tickets, see the Sundance website.