HomeMoviesUltimately, only life Review: The Indigo Girls remain real in the documentary
Ultimately, only life Review: The Indigo Girls remain real in the documentary
January 20, 2023
Sundance: The iconic lesbian folk rock duo gets a fittingly adorable portrait in this sweeping look at their unlikely and enduring success.
There’s a common refrain longingly chanted by fans of the Indigo Girls, the iconic folk rock duo that did more for lesbian visibility than anyone who came after them: “The Indigo Girls saved my life.” This isn’t just for queer people of a certain age, but for any sensitive soul who has felt held by the tight harmonies, beautiful melodies and poetic storytelling lyrics that defined the Indigo Girls sound.
With one such lyric as its title, “It’s Only Life After All” is a sweeping and honest documentary about how indigo girls Amy Ray and Emily Saliers met, played music, and pushed and inspired each other to achieve unlikely and lasting success. . Filled with never-before-seen footage and refreshingly candid interviews with the artists, this is an adorable opus befitting two long-overlooked musicians and activists.
So the film could be a little (okay, a lot) tighter—it just reflects how over-the-top the Indigo Girls flowers are. Long minimized and dismissed as “women’s music,” the gap between their cultural impact (not to mention their songwriting skills) and critical acclaim for their work is as long as the slapdash final chapters of a movie. Film director Alexandria Bombach (“Shoulder”) does not hide her fandom, she says in her director’s statement that she too was saved by the Indigo Girls. Hagiography can be forgiven if it’s deserved, but it’s hard to kill your loved ones when they saved your life.
It uses a bunch of archival footage, mostly shot by Amy on camera du jour, Bombach (who also edited the film) weaves a captivating portrait of the dynamic duo. Although they can be a bit camera-shy, they are helped by their openness, which is characteristic of artists this sensitive, but rare for such successful artists. In a heartfelt plea to the filmmaker behind the camera, Amy hopes the film can be “about something that’s not just about us.” They sometimes mistakenly humbly see their music as something outside of themselves, and their instruments as channels of creativity and connection that the world needs.
Both raised in Decatur, Georgia, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers met in grade school. Emily (the blonde, as Tig Notaro once called her before a surprise appearance) was a year older than Amy (the brunette), who idolized the dynamic and bubbly songwriter. Whether it was their unspoken weirdness or the fact that they both played guitar, they started writing songs together in high school. To hear them both tell it, it was creative love at first sight, and they quickly began performing regularly throughout high school and college.
Although they both came out quite young, they never dated, much to the surprise of the press and fans. The relationship has always been one of deep friendship and artistic collaboration. In their one-on-one interviews (they are the only talking heads in the film), they each express a genuine respect for what the other brought to the table.
They are “opposites in many ways” according to Amy, who thinks Emily is the better songwriter (they always write separately). Meanwhile, Emily admired Amy for her boldness and drive. “It always seemed to be one step ahead of evolution,” he said. “Amy has always been a driving force. And I just focused on the music and tried to hold up my end of the bargain.”
It’s true that Emily wrote the band’s greatest hits, such as ‘Galileo’, ‘Closer to Fine’, ‘Power of Two’ and ‘Love Will Come to You’. But it was Amy who pounded the proverbial pavement in the early years, booking and promoting gigs before the duo got a manager. Early photos and interviews present Amy as a peculiar heartthrob, squealing with confidence and exuding strange politics with her raspy growl.
Orchestrating a humorous sequence, Bombach asks them to read the infamous review by New York Times music critic Jon Pareles, and they both groan when they see the name. “Serious pretentiousness has new standard-bearers,” begins the short section, which ends with the phrase “flowery bad poetry.” They laugh at the retelling, but obviously some of the digs still sting. As funny as it is poignant, the stench of a sexist male music establishment taints what is by all accounts a massively successful career. “We’ve always been accused of being serious,” says Emily. “And I mean accused.”
Another arresting revelation is how they’ve become a running joke in pop culture. As one of the few queer women in public in the late ’80s and ’90s, it was all too easy to throw in an Indigo Girls joke or don a mullet wig when a comedian wanted to poke fun at lesbians. The Indigo Girls became synonymous with lesbians and vice versa, and their mere existence was political. It also hurt their chances of getting radio play, even though they were told it was their unique sound.
“After This Only Life” paints a holistic portrait of two artists who have become one, creating a moving collage of strange history with captivating archival footage. But by the time Bombach gets to their parenting journey and their (very impressive!) environmental activism, we’ve lost the plot—and the music. The decision not to interview anyone other than the artists is huge, but it leaves Pareles as the only objective critical voice. A counterpoint from a music historian or musician highlighting her rich harmonies or contextualizing them would have been far more valuable than yet another digression into Emily’s sobriety or Amy’s gender identity.
Emily makes it clear when she admits, “I feel like prejudice has diminished us. It is important for us to recognize that homophobia hindered our careers.” As they do in their music, they have to say it themselves.
“Only Life After This” premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.