Indigo Girls Amy Ray and Emily Saliers said yes when documentarian Alexandria Bombach asked if she could make a documentary about them. They just had one caveat.
“It can’t really be about us,” Ray said Saturday at a Sarasota Film Festival screening of Bombach’s winning doc, It’s Only Life After All. Ray and Saliers insisted that the film shine a light on all the people and causes they’ve championed throughout their careers, because amplifying others’ voices has been a value of the Indigo Girls from their start, more than 30 years ago.
That was just fine with Bombach, whose recent films have covered Yazidi genocide and Afghanistan. She sources her social consciousness in part to her Indigo Girls fandom. Even as a 12-year-old, she said, she learned about people who needed help from the duo’s liner notes.
“Buying their CDs, they always had causes in the albums themselves. I think that really affected me growing up — that that was important to have in a CD case,” she said Saturday.
Her work has focused largely on activism, and some of the disheartening aspects of trying to make a difference. But seeing the duo’s approach inspired her, she said at the Q&A.
It’s Only Life After All takes its title from a line in “Closer to Fine,” which is an Indigo Girls song you’ve probably gotten stuck in your head at some point even if you don’t know their work well. (At least that was the case for me.) Watching the film, it’s hard not to be impressed with them as songwriters, yes, but also as activists eager to share the stage.
From very early on, and often in Saturday’s Q&A, they refracted credit and praise to others — from people who gave them early bookings, to R.E.M. for taking them on the road, but especially to Winona LaDuke, the Indigenous activist alongside whom they’ve long fought for environmental justice over decades of concerts and tours.
The film, featuring decades of archival footage maintained by Amy Ray, finds them singing for the environment, LGBTQ+ youth, Black Lives Matter, and a slew of other progressive causes. The film, which premiered at Sundance in January, shows them fighting for others even as they deal with their own inner struggles.
Though Indigo Girls are praised today as one of the first out and proud mainstream musical acts, the film makes clear how much sexism and homophobia Ray and Saliers have endured since publicly coming out some three decades ago, when relatively few artists had. Ray and Saliers talk candidly in the film about internalized homophobia and continuing to define themselves.
Also in the doc, Saliers discusses her struggles with alcoholism, and Ray her sometimes explosive temper. They handle everything with grace, humor and kindness.
Where to Watch the Indigo Girls Doc It’s Only Life After All
Though It’s Only Life After All is making the festival rounds, it doesn’t currently have distribution. The packed house for Saturday’s Sarasota Film Festival screening made it clear that there’s a passionate audience out there with a deep emotional connection to the group.
Florida can feel like a less welcoming place to many LGBTQ+ people these days, as its governor opportunistically scapegoats them and tries to police what children can learn in school.
“We are in the state of Florida,” said Saliers during the Q&A. “I’m just gonna get f—ing political, y’all. … This is what the conservative factions in this country are doing. They’re trying to make large sections of human beings in their states invisible. They are passing these trans laws that don’t give a s— about the kids.
“They want to make being trans ‘not a thing,'” she continued. “They want to make what happened to Black Americans not a thing that happened. … Amy and I, were we’re very fired up about what is going on around us. And so there’s always a fire inside, to speak to issues and to learn from mentors and to network and see how we can all come together and be effective to fight these terrible things that are happening like a wave in our country right now.”
Many at the Q&A stood up to tell Ray and Saliers how Indigo Girls songs have helped them persevere in their fight for justice.
“You need to know that your music, poetry and lyrics have been the backdrop for the lives of people like me,” one woman said, “who have founded community centers for gay people, who have chaperoned gay proms, who have done social justice work — in part because you and women’s music artists have given us, I think, the creative energy to go forward and to lead lives.”
Main image: Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, aka Indigo Girls.