POSTED ON 4/11/2012
CIMMfriend and feminist film theorist extraordinaire Sara Freeman, of Celluloid Angel, recently watched Song of Love, a mediocre 1947 movie about the love triangle between Clara and Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms. Katharine Hepburn played Clara Schumann and, while the movie isn’t very good, it is an interesting film to watch after viewing Judy Chaikin’s illuminating, heartwarming documentary, The Girls in the Band. The doc honors female musicians from the ‘30s to the present (like Ina Ray Hutton, The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, and Peggy Gilbert) and exposes the sexism, racism, and historical airbrushing many women endured because of their desire to perform music. Despite its faults, Song of Love shows what admiration male and female audiences of the day had for Clara Schumann and her jaw-dropping musical talent. Music was for everyone.
Somewhere between Clara Schumann’s death in 1896 and the Great Depression, music became a man’s world, and the many gifted ladies featured in The Girls in the Band discuss how they pushed through the cracks and fought for their rights as women and musicians. The film also offers a lot of cute stories (you’ll never listen to Tommy Dorsey in the same way again), fantastic archive footage, and (you guessed it) great music to boot. The Girls in the Band‘s got rhythm, it’s got music, it’s got CIMMfest’s love, and we hope it’ll get yours too.
Sara recently chatted with director Judy Chaikin via e-mail about her musical background and making the film.
CIMMfest: Your love and appreciation of music is apparent in your film. Did you grow up listening to a lot of female musicians? Any particular favorites?
Judy Chaikin: No, I didn’t know anything about women musicians until I made the film. I grew up in a family of musicians and studied piano and trumpet as a child, but quickly realized it wasn’t a woman’s game so I gave it up and went into theater and eventually filmmaking. Only when I was making this film did I discover all these amazing women who didn’t give it up, no matter how hard it was.
Did your interest in making the film start with any specific musician or girl band? Who was the first person you interviewed?
My interest came about when a friend told me she had met a woman who was 90 and said that she played drums in a big band in the forties. I didn’t believe that because I had grown up with musicians and loved big bands and never heard of a woman in any of them. But my interest was piqued and I began to do some research and quickly realized there was an amazing story here. The first woman we interviewed was Peggy Gilbert, a 100 year old sax player who was just amazing.
How did you gain access to such amazing archival footage?
It was four years of research with a team of five and sometimes six people who literally scoured archives all over the world.
What kind of trouble did you run into with the music clearances?
We haven’t yet paid for our theatrical and television music rights. All we can do is go to festivals right now. We’re still raising money for the music clearances. That humungous music clearance budget has been the downall of many great films. . . but I hope not ours. We’re still looking for that angel who says “this is important and I want to help.”
Do you see any correlation between female musicians and filmmakers of the Classic Hollywood/Big Band era? Do you think it was easier for female musicians to create music than it was for gal filmmakers to make films? How about in this day and age?
It’s a very direct correlation. . . we all hit the same brick wall, it’s a man’s world and changing that landscape is like trying to turn the Titanic around. The only thing that makes it easier for musicians is that all you have to do in order practice your craft is play your horn with a couple of other musicians. A filmmaker can’t even get to practice their craft until somebody comes up with a big chunk of money. It’s a bit easier these days with all the digital equipment, but it’s definitely not for the faint of heart.
Do you have any musical talents?
Yes, but not to the degree that the women in the film did. Most of them were “born musicians” and never wanted to do anything else. I studied dance and theater as well as music and found them much more to my liking, mainly because women didn’t have to fight for acceptance because of their gender. That is, until I got on the other side of the camera and started directing. Then it was different.
I was very moved by the sheer gumption, passion and pride of the ladies you interviewed. Their dedication to the art of music and their individual talents was quite inspiring. What message do you ultimately hope audiences walk away with after hearing their amazing stories and learning about their legacies?
I hope the film will help destroy some of the stereotypes that confine women. The historic lack of respect for women artists is criminal. They’ve been all but eliminated from the history books and in their own times were marginalized just because they were women. Carline Ray says it best in the film: “You put two musicians behind a curtain and how you gonna tell which one is a man and which one is a woman. . . you can’t . . . it’s the music that counts.” That’s what I hope people, especially young women, will walk away with: an understanding that it’s what you do, not what gender you are, that matters.
Can you talk about the friendships and relationships the women experienced as band members? Groups of women are often depicted as being catty and selfish, but the women you interviewed make it all seem very harmonious and supportive. It seems like they had a “We’re all in this together” group mentality.
That attitude of co-operation was something that all the women stressed. They were all very supportive of each other. It’s the kind of mentality you have to have when you play in a band. Everyone has to be together or it’s not going to swing. That false picture of cattyness that’s portrayed in so many films and television is a problem that stems for an over abundance of male writers. Most men haven’t a clue how to write women’s roles, so they settle for cheap laughs and easily digestible stereotypes. Very few can capture the rich, complexity of women’s lives. And unfortunately many young women take those stereotypes as role models and sadly, drink the kool aid of their own demise.
# # #
Check out The Girls in the Band on Sunday, April 15 at 3:15pm.