"Where are we going?"
So goes the rallying cry of Girl Trouble, as depicted in archival footage as they ready themselves to go onstage sometime in the mid-'80s. This is not only just one small example of the awe-inspiring mountain of footage dug up for the forthcoming documentary, Strictly Sacred: The Story of Girl Trouble, but a tongue-in-cheek mission statement for the film itself.
While Strictly Sacred is ostensibly about the long-running Tacoma garage rock legends, Girl Trouble, its second subject is arguably about Tacoma itself: a warts and all look at our fair city, less a love letter than a dusty, cracked photograph of a perpetual underdog. There's warmth to Strictly Sacred's look at Tacoma, though accompanied by the sort of sigh of recognition you'd give when you look at the scrappy runt of the litter - always a fighter, never a thoroughbred.
Strictly Sacred tracks the shaggy, 30-year career of Girl Trouble in a way that few rock documentaries approach. Coming in at a lean 95 minutes, the film does a laudable job of distilling a (once again) astonishing amount of archival footage and history into a digestible look at a band that rose to the level of admiration without ever feeling the need to push further into fame and money. Girl Trouble never abandoned Tacoma, even during their shaky tenure at Sub Pop.
Girl Trouble's story, long though it may be, isn't the sort of salacious tale that surrounds most other rock groups that last this long. No drug addiction, no premature death, no bloated egos - nothing but lead singer KP Kendall briefly abandoning the band and their bogus lawsuit with Gorilla Productions approaches anything you'd find on Behind the Music. As such, Strictly Sacred succeeds on the merits of the footage, on Isaac Olsen's kinetic and inventive editing style, and on the warmth and likability of the subjects.
In addition to the core group of Kendall, Bill Henderson (AKA the Big Kahuna, guitar), Dale Phillips (bass), and Bon Von Wheelie (nee Henderson, drums), there's invaluable footage of the elder Hendersons: the Powerhouse (dad) and the Babe (mom). Together with Girl Trouble, they created a house for lost toys and wayward youth. Misfits of all sizes were welcomed with remarkable grace and humor by these two, and it's heartening to see a bunch of punks standing around the frilly kitchen, drinking Cokes, and shooting the breeze with the Babe.
They're a family. In the case of the Hendersons, this is literally the case, but the rest form a makeshift family of misfits. At the end, that's what Strictly Sacred is about: punks, hippies, mods, junkies, folkies, Tacoma in general. Isaac Olsen, nephew of Kahuna and Von Wheelie, directed the film; brother Sam Olsen (of Red Hex) is featured; a touching vignette about Grandma Go-Go (surely the eldest Girl Trouble fan) shows a mother-son relationship between her and Kendall; Neko Case shows up to tell about running away from home at 15 and how Girl Trouble shows helped keep her on her feet.
It's important to document Girl Trouble - which the band itself seemed to realize, seeing as how they were almost obsessively documented back in the '80s - but Strictly Sacred ends up telling a story that amounts to more than a group of punks playing garage rock. The music is all there for those who haven't heard it, and the footage of old school Tacoma concerts is invigorating, but the film ends up being about these people, who have somehow managed to not drive each other crazy after so many years of living and working and playing with each other. It's a story of kindred spirits living in shacks and flophouses and cigarette-stained basements and sweaty hole-in-the-wall venues.
Girl Trouble, as a band, has never been about anything more than music. As is said many times in the film, if they were to ever stop having fun playing music, it'd be over. Thirty years later, that thankfully hasn't happened. But, even if it did, we now have a priceless artifact of their existence, of Tacoma the way it used to be, and where they'll all be heading next.
As the tagline goes, they've "eluded fame since 1984," but there's no escaping infamy.
Strictly Sacred: The Story of Girl Trouble premieres at the Seattle International Film Festival, May 26 and 27. For details, visit www.siff.net.