“Girls have got balls. They’re just a little higher up that’s all.” – Joan Jett
At Rock and Roll Camp for Girls in Portland, Oregon, girls between the ages of 8 and 18 get a week to form a band, learn to play an instrument, write a song and at the end of the week, perform in front of 700 people.
The documentary Girls Rock follows the young campers and their camp counselors, known as band managers, during an intense week. Not only do these girls learn how to rock, they also learn self-defense, anger management and how to cope with shaky self-esteem. The campers come from all races and backgrounds and embody every musical stripe.
Filmmakers Arne Johnson and Shane King focus their camera lens on four individual campers. Laura is a 15 year-old Korean adoptee who loves death metal and whose parents can’t quite figure her out. Amelia is an energetic spectacle-wearing eight-year-old who writes lyrics about her dog Pipi. Palace, a sweet-faced and tough-minded seven-year old is far wiser than her years (she’s the one looking fierce on the movie poster above). And then there is troubled Misty, who has struggled with meth addiction, gang violence and juvenile hall.
The film makers allow the girls to speak for themselves showing them as real girls with dreams and problems that often don’t get addressed as much as they should. A week at Rock and Roll Camp for Girls gives our young heroines a chance to be “100% exactly who they are.” Cool mentor rock chicks like Beth Ditto from The Gossip and Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein (who also emotes as several characters on the TV show Portlandia) offer sage advice to the campers. They remind the girls they can take up space, scream as loud as they want, make mistakes and triumph at the same time.
Intermingled with scenes from camp are some disturbing factoids. Girls are expected to “be sexy” themselves at very young ages, eating disorders are huge problems, and not surprisingly, girls are filled with feelings of self-doubt. Not to mention, riot grrrl third wave feminist rockers of the 1990s like Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth were soon over-shadowed by barely legal pop tarts like Britney Spears. Is it any wonder young girls think they have to be thong-wearing airheads to be accepted? When camper Laura casually mentions, “I just accept that I hate myself,” it breaks your heart.
The girls have a lot to work out both personally and musically during the short week at Rock and Roll Camp. But in a small segment in time these girls master their instruments and their songs. They figure out the mundane, like finally deciding on a band name and the more significant, like working as a team. But most importantly, they learn to believe in themselves and all they can accomplish.
Girls Rock culminates at the end when the girls finally perform in front of family, friends and fellow campers. I was absolutely delighted how much these girls achieved in just a week. They are truly an impressive bunch, and I found myself applauding and well as getting teary-eyed. Perhaps most of them won’t end up playing sold out shows at Madison Square Garden, but Rock and Roll Camp gives them lessons that will last a lifetime. Do girls rock? Yes, they certainly do. And Girls Rock is probably one of the most important “chick flicks” I have ever seen.