How ‘Women Who Rock’ Documentary Became a Celebration
"I was a girl that loved playing rock 'n' roll," Joan Jett says in the series trailer for Women Who Rock, "but I wanted to be a musician who happened to be a girl."
Jett's desire to be seen as more than just a woman wielding a guitar — a general eagerness to be taken seriously — is a common sentiment throughout the new four-part series from Epix. It works chronologically, weaving through the decades, and features an impressive array of women who have made a profound impact on the world of rock 'n' roll in personal ways.
Women Who Rock is best described as a tower of building blocks. From Mavis Staples with her compelling, gospel-infused voice, to Nancy Wilson hitting the strings of her guitar alongside a band of mostly men (besides her sister) in Heart, to Pat Benatar redefining the image of femininity as she became the first woman to appear on MTV, to Courtney Love of Hole venting her frustrations through song, each barrier broken led to another one to demolish. Along the way, they inspired the next generation and the one after that. There's some brutal honesty in Women Who Rock. Chaka Khan recounts the pushback she received when she revealed she was pregnant: There was little room for a woman to be both a performing musician and a parent, though men did it frequently. Ricki Lee Jones recalls one instance where she was asked to sit on her boss' lap or else lose her job.
At the same time, a continuous stream of individuality, innovation and inspiration runs through the series, as evidenced by the contemporary musicians like Annie Clark, better known as St. Vincent; Margo Price and Yola who speak in the film. Each speaks of the importance of seeing women persevere so that they could continue to carry the torch.
Women Who Rock, which is currently rolling out on Epix, is directed by Jessica Hopper, a music journalist who cut her teeth in the '90s. Ever since she's been a leading force in feminist music writing. To encapsulate the history of women in rock 'n' roll was a near-impossible task, but one that Hopper says is crucial to understanding both the evolution of the genre as a whole and its trajectory today.
Hopper discusses Women Who Rock with UCR below.
Women Who Rock covers a lot of ground in only a few hours. Was it daunting to tackle such an expansive project like this?
The daunting part was, kind of, 'How do we give all of these women their due?' – because they're all icons, they're all historically important women. They are all just titanically inspiring women. History is history, if we're following it in a linear way – which we do here. We jump around a little bit, but we move in a pretty straight, linear arc. It was a constant fight of "kill your darlings," as we say as writers. It was a lot of hard choices because all of these women have fascinating stories. ... To go, "OK, well, we're gonna condense Joni Mitchell into two and a half minutes." We could have done 20 minutes on Joni and every person that we interviewed talked about Joni. The [daunting part] is really almost more from just speaking as a fan, and that we just got such incredible interviews.
Who were you most excited to interview for this film?
There's so many. I mean, there were women that I'd never gotten to interview before, some certainly not for a lack of trying, but you know ... the chance to get to talk to someone like Sheryl Crow, who previously I had interviewed her, for like, a grand total of probably 10 minutes. ... And then there were other people that I had interviewed half a dozen times, like Annie Clark from St. Vincent – who, even though I've talked to her a million times, and we've known each other for probably 20 years, I was still really excited to interview her. ... I think I was most nervous to interview Chaka Khan. She's elusive; she doesn't do a lot of press. I mean, she doesn't have to, she's Chaka. ... For me as an author and a music historian and a journalist and all the other things that I am, aside from being a director/producer, being able to really interrogate that history, and her history and hear it from her perspective with all of her just immaculate charisma, which really comes across on the screen. Getting to talk to her was, I mean, that's really a dream.
Watch the Trailer for 'Women Who Rock'
How did you come to select the contemporary artists in this film, people like Margo Price or Yola, for example?
We went out to folks who we felt were really folks that had done some work that was groundbreaking, that they were sort of making bold incursions into the world that they're working in. Margo [Price] and Yola are pretty easy to cast — I mean, easy to see the work that they do. ... If we're talking to someone like a Mavis Staples and a Chaka Khan and a Nona Hendryx, these women that broke all manner of barriers and really made work that just created space for so many people that were coming up after that — if you're looking for that similar sense of an artist, a woman who's really endowing and creating space for other women, Yola is front and center. She brings so many other women into her work both historically and as influences, and all that she sort of reifies in terms of black women's space in country music and Americana and roots music and country and western. And rock's earliest pioneers and earliest innovators, as we spotlight, were all black women. So she's someone that I really see carrying that space, that idea forward.
Yeah, the '90s section especially was interesting to me because of that. I was thinking about how there's a direct line between someone like Kathleen Hanna from Bikini Kill or Fiona Apple, right through to someone like Olivia Rodrigo or Phoebe Bridgers.
Oh gosh, yeah. And those are two people that I wish we could have gotten to. We could have used like another nine episodes, but also, as someone who has long been making feminist work or work with a feminist lens, we don't have to fit every single woman in here. There's a lot of space for people to come in and still examine these histories. And this is really just meant to be, ultimately, a celebration – not an encyclopedia.
There's a moment in the film with Joan Jett that struck me. She's known for being a really tough, resilient individual in the industry, and yet you see her get a bit emotional on camera talking about her journey to where she is now. It's powerful to watch.
That actually happened — I wouldn't say quite a bit, but there were some artists where, you know, the things that they had to withstand, oftentimes when they were the first or the only woman, or being told they were the first or the only woman, or that they were so different from other women that they got to be in this hallowed sort of boys' club space — that sort of injury, and that sort of slight, that kind of isolation, that sort of discrimination, especially when you are making art. Even if that art is a product, it is a product of you, it is a product of your vision, your genius, your skill, your 1000s of hours of practice — and then to be subject to some of people's most base level misogyny, and just fear, or their most baked-level racist, homophobic thoughts. ... Some women talked to us about the size-ism that they encountered, even. People trying to have meetings with them and [being] like, "Well, you have to do X, Y and Z to your body to be successful." I mean, the things that these women withstood and managed to continue making art ... being able to just be there in the room with that level of candor and feeling and the stories that these women are passing on about what they had to go through, good and bad — I think you can't help but to be changed by that. ... I think that Joan's [story] is especially poignant for all those reasons that you say — her toughness, as well as her songwriting and all that she is and how she is and how her songs really embody her image and vice versa. She's just such an icon and to see that impact, I think, is really powerful. And I think people need to see it.
What else would you like people to know about Women Who Rock?
I think it's for people who are fans of music, fans of history, and even if you only like a handful of the artists in here, I think there's a lot of space for discovery and revelation – even if you already are a deep nerd, or if you're just coming to it as a casual fan. I think there's a lot there for people.
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