SIFF 2014 Review: Strictly Sacred: A Film about Girl Trouble

The Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) may not be Cannes, or Tribeca for that matter, but it sure was the place to be for fans of the band Girl Trouble this year. The world premiere of Strictly Sacred: A Film about Girl Trouble was held on May 26 at the SIFF Cinema Uptown in Seattle. I hear it was a great event, but I went to the “second premiere” on May 27 at the Renton IKEA Performing Arts Center. And I know that one was great.

It was great because it was family. The only person who could have made this movie is Isaac Olsen, the 28-year old nephew of Bill “Big Kahuna” Henderson (guitar) and Bon “Von Wheelie” Henderson (drums). Olsen had total access, and considering the fact that the band are celebrating their 30th year together, he has been listening to them his entire life.

The other two members of Girl Trouble are Dale Phillips (bass), and Kurt P. Kendall (vocals). In a very real sense though, Girl Trouble are about their hometown, Tacoma, WA – and all of their fans. With Strictly Sacred, Olsen achieved something I did not think was possible. He brought the Girl Trouble sense of humor to the big screen in the most heartwarming way I could imagine. As my date said as we were leaving the theatre, “Even if you knew nothing about them, you can’t help but love them after that movie.”

I could not agree more. Girl Trouble’s first album Hit It or Quit It came out on Sup Pop in 1988, and they should have been part of the “Seattle scene.” But as they laughingly point out in the film, they did not fit the mold. Not no kind of way. The Sub Pop bands were all flying hair and flannel, and while Bill could often be seen wearing flannel, “I didn’t have the flying hair because mine was falling out,” as he says.

No, Girl Trouble hearken back to a different Northwest scene. Their musical heroes are bands like The Kingsmen, The Wailers, and especially The Sonics. Those early-sixties garage maniacs may not be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but for Girl Trouble, they are the Hall of Fame.

It shows in the music, which some have compared to The Cramps. That is fair, but Girl Trouble are their own band. Needless to say, it was not a good fit with Sub Pop. One of the biggest laughs of the night came when Bon said, “We were probably the first band to leave Sub Pop.

The small label with the big shield called K (Records) was much closer to the Girl Trouble-style. During the Q and A after the film, Olsen mentioned that he did not want Strictly Sacred to be a “talking heads” picture. Although I am pretty sure that comment could be taken as a “Talking Heads” picture, what he was referencing was that there were very few people interviewed for it. One of those was Calvin Johnson of Beat Happening, and the founder of K Records.

Johnson is interviewed extensively, as is graphic designer Art Chantry. Both of them worked with Girl Trouble and have a lot of funny stories. They both kind of came to same conclusion, which was to let Girl Trouble do what they do. As Bon said to another huge laugh, “I’m what you would call a control freak.” As anyone who has seen the fan magazine she produces called Wig Out! would agree though, she knows what she is doing.

I have seen a lot of band documentaries over the years, but I really cannot think of one that I have enjoyed more. Just seeing it on the big screen thanks to SIFF accepting it is a big deal. More than that though, Olsen gets into the heart of this group, and makes you feel like you are a part of it.

Maybe that is just me, because I do feel that I am part of it in my own small way. Being from Tacoma myself, sharing the thrift-shop culture thing, and knowing them. It seems more universal though, like my date said. Their story and their personalities are captured perfectly in this movie.

I watched a DVD a few months ago called East End Babylon: The Cockney Rejects Story, and the thing that struck me was the fact that they were so specific. The Rejects were from the East End of London, and that was their universe. It got all the way down to naming houses, and the fact that they lived blocks away from each other. The movie kind of made me want to see this weird, foreign land. But it also seemed almost ridiculously provincial.

After watching Strictly Sacred, I got it. The group’s home is vitally important, and this picture is as much a love letter to Tacoma, Washington as it is to Girl Trouble. There is footage of Tacoma’s ad for itself in the ‘80s, saying “Admit it, Tacoma. You’re Beautiful,” followed by shots of smokestacks billowing out Lord knows what. The unofficial motto has always been “The Aroma of Tacoma,” and the old, ugly Tacoma is a part of Girl Trouble. The city fathers are actually succeeding in cleaning things up, and that is shown too. Cleaning it up makes it look nice, but bland as hell. It is sad thing.

Girl Trouble are the garage band playing at the local dive bar that is filled with cigarette smoke and cheap beer. They wear the clothes they got at the Goodwill, because that is what they like. That world is changing, even in Tacoma, and this movie makes you realize it, and miss it. It also makes you realize that Girl Trouble have been celebrating this stuff for 30 years now, and if you get their love of the “junk,” you get them.

I talked with Bill after the film, and one of the things that came up was people we both knew who are not with us anymore. He and I met when we were students at Fort Steilacoom Community College, when we were both 18. He has some grey in the sideburns, and less hair, but he is pretty much the same guy I met back in 1981. None of the band members have kids, so in the movie they talk about getting four cemetery plots together, with a big headstone saying: “Here Lies Girl Trouble.” But I think that time is still a long ways off.

They have that dark sense of humor, they still play music your mom won’t like, and they have been together for 30 years now. Is it strictly personal for me? Well, I do have a connection to them, but there is more. Even in the midst of this seemingly endless recession, every city is trying to build itself up. Cleaning out the junk, as it were. Girl Trouble celebrate the junk. They know that the junk is where their town’s personality is. I think that is something we can all relate to, in one way or another.

It is a shame that Strictly Sacred will probably not be at your local multi-plex, playing next to Godzilla or Spiderman 2. Because I believe with all of my heart that you would enjoy Strictly Sacred: A Film about Girl Trouble more.

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Greg Barbrick

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