by Jamie Brown
There is a buzz about the BFI Southbank on the penultimate night of LFF 2017. The festival schedulers have a nice habit of reserving one of their Saturday night slots for a music documentary premiere, and this year it’s the turn of a new screen biography of punk icons The Slits. Similar occasions at previous LFF renewals have launched excellent films about Ginger Baker, Big Star and Edwyn Collins amongst others. They are often the most exciting events in the programme; alternative gala screenings but at a regular price and without the red carpet nonsense. VIPs mingle with the audience and the Q&A sessions tend to be lively. This year is no exception.
Here To Be Heard: The Story of The Slits; Dir: William E. Badgley; BFI London Film Festival strand: Create; UK/USA 2017, 86 mins; Our Rating: ★★★★/5
Known primarily for being the first all-female punk outfit, The Slits are not your run-of-the-mill rock doc subjects. This ground-breaking act released very few records, and had virtually no commercial success whatsoever, reaching the right ears via sources such as the John Peel show. With a challenging, highly unorthodox sound, an image that ferociously reflected back society’s hostility to freethinking women, and profane lyrics adding to that provocative moniker, a solitary top 40 album was their only real flirtation with the pop charts. Despite this, the band became so astonishingly influential that this feature-length recognition still feels painfully overdue. While a rock profile would usually focus on the music, The Slits, as was the case with most punk groups, had a lasting impact on art and social attitudes that outweighs the importance of their sporadic recordings.
Director William E. Badgley is the man (a surprise, perhaps) charged with the unenviable task of setting the record straight. Covering a subject of such cult status brings with it the tough challenge of striking a balance between getting the attention of the uninitiated and pleasing existing know-it-all fans, especially as there probably aren’t too many in the middle. Opening with the closest thing The Slits ever had to a hit single (it wasn’t), their cover of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”, the story is told mostly by the three surviving members of the core line-up of 1976-1978, guitarist Viv Albertine, bass player Tessa Pollitt, and drummer and founding member Paloma ‘Palmolive’ McLardy. Pollitt is the most important contributor to the film, digging out a scrapbook of treasures through which she pieces together a documented history of the band.
A chronological approach leads to a much stronger first half of the film, packed with important footage, great anecdotes, important social context and an equal contribution from the three women. We see some fabulous images of a wildly unrestrained young band in their pomp, at the Roxy Club in Covent Garden and sharing the bill on zeitgeist-defining tours with The Clash and The Sex Pistols. This explains but perhaps under-emphasises the fact that The Slits were present at the earliest stages of the punk movement. Due to the fact that they didn’t release an album until 1979, which essentially sounds nothing like what we normally understand as punk rock, the band are often categorised as post-punk, which while more accurately describing their music can perhaps give the false impression that they came on board later.
The Slits have strong connections with punk’s two most celebrated bands that are only partially explained, perhaps in an effort not to allow these famous men to define their story. Drummer Palmolive arrived in London from her native Spain in 1972, took residence in a squat, and had a two-year relationship with a hippie named Woody. Woody would later change his name to Joe Strummer and introduce Palmolive to Sid Vicious, with whom she would form the band Flowers Of Romance, along with Albertine. Excluded details from the film include The Clash bassist Paul Simonon accidentally coining the drummer’s stage name, and Albertine’s relationship with guitarist Mick Jones. Palmolive would go on to form The Slits with lead singer Ariane ‘Ari Up’ Forster, aged only 14 at the time, who sadly died of cancer aged 48 in 2010. Albertine and Pollitt came on board a short time later, replacing the original guitarist and bassist.
The film briefly mentions gatherings at Ari Up’s house, where her German mother Nora Forster would take the waifs and strays of punk into an open house, creating an extended family and safe space for the young women to express themselves. The associated male punk royalty is excluded from the story altogether here – Nora married John Lydon, then still better known as Johnny Rotten of The Sex Pistols, in 1977, so Lydon became Ari Up’s stepfather. Neither Nora Forster nor Lydon contribute to the film, and these do feel like important absences. A very brief comment from Pistols drummer Paul Cook is the only thing we hear from punk’s leading men.
Rightfully given centre stage is The Slits’ radical feminist ethos. The band members’ recollections define the UK’s dire sexist culture of the seventies, and the absence of a female voice, even in the forward-thinking punk scene, that created a space for the band’s politics to evolve and shape their image and performance, and to shock onlookers. Fiercely confrontational both on and off stage, reactions to the band could be extreme, including the attempted stabbing of Ari, still a child, by one male. The band rejected virtually all attempts at labelling, including the term ‘punk’ itself which they regarded as a comfortable pigeonhole for the media.
The recording of the band’s most important release, debut album Cut, which receives far more recognition now than it ever did at the time, arrived after The Slits signed a deal with Island records and just as Palmolive was booted out of the band. This is why the album’s famous cover features only three women naked but for some mud and loin cloth. This is an excellent section of the film, humorously covering the band’s infighting and with additional contributions from producer Dennis Bovell. With Ari Up in particular increasingly inspired by reggae and Rastafarian culture, the band chose reggae producer Bovell, which resulted in a highly original dub sound that, even today, is hard to pin down or compare with anything else.
The second half of the film lingers for a bit too long on the reformation of 2005-2010, meaning Albertine, who opted out, disappears from the film altogether. This section of the film concentrates heavily on Ari Up and paying tribute to her extraordinary artistry and force-of-nature personality. The film is possibly guilty of hagiography at this point, and it’s perfectly understandable given that work on the film began only three years after Ari’s death and was initially her idea. This is arguably where the absence of Nora Forster and Lydon is felt. More of Ari’s mother’s story – an heiress to a wealthy German publisher who rejected the family business for the music industry and worked with Jimi Hendrix – would add some important context to Ari’s characteristics. Lydon has also documented in his memoir a few flaws and contradictions, particularly in relation to Ari’s alternative approach to parenting, that might have humanised the portrait of her presented here.
All round, I think the film fails in documenting the post-script to The Slits initial break-up in 1982. Albertine became a filmmaker, and has more recently returned to music and produced some excellent solo material, as well as writing an absolutely top-drawer autobiography. This is reduced to a few shots of a book signing in the closing summary. Palmolive’s post-punk life as a born-again Christian is captured, although her covering of Slits songs in a Christian rock band, changing lines such as “Frequent Mutilation” into “Jesus Is The Answer” is conveniently erased. Pollitt makes reference to her problems with heroin addiction, but there is no further detail given.
Another thing that seems strangely missing is any reference to the band’s legacy. The reason we are all here watching a film about The Slits in 2017 is that their influence can be found everywhere. The lack of input from any Slits-inspired younger musicians is surprising, because there are many. Take some typical Slits apparel – say, torn fishnets, Doc Martens and a tutu or child’s dress – then go forward one generation to Courtney Love, and numerous female alt-rock bands of the 1990s and examine the evidence. Go forward two generations and you’ll find that exact look mass-produced for high street consumption. This last part might perhaps be an unwanted epitaph, but it does at least underline the band’s cultural impact.
The UK punk scene has been so incredibly well documented by Julien Temple in films such as The Filth and the Fury, and Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten that it’s impossible not to wonder how a Temple version of this might have turned out. I’d also say that as a piece of filmmaking, Here To Be Heard doesn’t measure up to The Punk Singer, about the Slits-inspired Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna. That feels terribly harsh on Badgley who has spent four years on this project and delivered an entertaining, highly watchable film to fill a conspicuous gap in the punk pantheon. Here To Be Heard will work well as an introduction to The Slits for potential new fans, and punk parents may be grateful of something with which to steer their teenage daughters in the ‘right’ direction. Those of us who were already on board were always going to be harder to please.