Review by Sarah Williams
Tomboy (no, not the Céline Sciamma film) is a grab-bag of tales of women drummers making their way through a man’s world. Many will be drawn in for the archival footage of Courtney Love and Hole at practice through the eyes of drummer Samantha Maloney, but the other stories are just as compelling. The true breakout is teenager Bo-Pah Sledge, whose pop group formed with her three sisters reveals a charismatic young musician under the radar.
Female masculinity is oft-avoided as a touchy subject, but the film touches upon it well. Aside from the instrument, what these women have in common is a defiance for gender barriers that hold them back. This comes in varying levels, with some women pushing back against femininity in all cases, in the case of Chase Noelle and her band Boytoy, while others are only concerned with the limitations their gender seems to put upon them on getting to play music, and are content with the social roles. One woman talks about using empty toilet paper rolls to pee standing up as a kid, while a young girl has shelves of My Little Pony toys — proof that these women’s experiences and presentations are as varied as the music they made. Industry veteran Bobbye Hall, who has backed up Bob Dylan, as well as many big names in Motown, is less outspoken compared to her younger counterparts, refusing to go in depth as to how hard it had been for her as a black female drummer. This doesn’t make her less of a feminist, just more hardened and weary of the industry.
Neon-glazed concert footage mixed with grainy home video gives the film its punk rock aesthetic. Others have criticized amateur camerawork, but the DIY nature puts it further into the throes of the music world. The sound is layered between clips so that it flows wonderfully, avoiding stretches of silence by blending music, voices, and the dull roar of a basement crowd. The beating of sticks on symbols and drumheads is a constant, and it is this sound that moves the film along. The opening narration talks about how the drummer is the one who always must stay on beat, because they are what holds a song together and can cover mistakes of others, and that is the same for the documentary as well as a song. Director Lindsay Lindenbaum assembles a warm portrait of the women’s lives around the music without going biographical. We hear a hint of "Jingle Bell Rock" on a holiday, or see vinyl records of the music they grew up with, and we feel like we know these women a little better.
Generational growth and connection shows these drummers shared experience, how the ways women move through the music world has changed, and how some parts remain deeply rooted. We see older subjects talk about being the only girl in the music scene when they started, while we meet another young subject who talks about a relationship with a bandmate. There is a startlingly good handle on sexuality and gender, portraying the effects of these on the battle to be heard with nuance, as well as touching upon how race changes the entrance to the music world. It isn’t a perfect intersectional discussion, but a variety of voices (notably by having half the subjects being black women) are brought to the table to show the many experiences. Noelle’s story is handled a little more roughly than the others; she’s the most outspoken in her feminism, and often preaches to the camera, making generalizations that not all the women share. Hall refutes a slightly egoist decry from the younger woman that the drummer has the greatest importance by talking about listening to the other instruments to create the ideal sound.
The feminist leanings are firmer at the start, slowly letting up from direct statements to the point the film is then solely about the music. We hear more of the music women love to create, and can fill the original “women’s fight to be heard” narrative in ourselves. The focus is lost a bit halfway through, and a central thesis is never developed, but it’s a solid, well-rounded view of the music industry that’s incredibly engaging, and a rousing success overall.
Tomboy was set to debut at the cancelled 2020 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.