Back in the late 1980s, UCLA film school graduate Kurt Voss teamed with fellow alums Allison Anders and cinematographer Dean Lent to make the ultra-low-budget "Border Radio," still one of the best movies ever made about the world of rock music.
Since then Voss has gone on to collaborate on such striking films as "Horseplayer" and "Delusion." His return to the rock world, "Down and Out With the Dolls," is an authentically raw, raucous account of the rise and fall of an all-girl Portland, Ore., rock band. The hilariously outrageous is tinged with just enough pain and darkness to keep this comedy tethered to reality.
Songwriter-guitarist Kali (Ni-cole Barrett), drummer Reggie (Kinnie Starr) and bassist Lavender (Melody Moore) work day jobs dreaming of when they can pull together a band. When haughty local diva Fauna (Zoë Poledouris) is dumped from her goth group, the girls land her as their lead singer and the newly christened Paper Dolls seem on their way.
"Down and Out" is based on a story by rock musician and Portland native Nalini DD Cheriel, who as the film's production designer creates for it an amusing, funky, thrift-store décor. In adapting Cheriel's story, Voss understands that the ruthless aspects of the music business are virtually a given and wisely keeps in the foreground the interplay of the four young women; they rent an old house with the belief that living under the same roof will foster their collective creativity.
A clash between the two dominant figures is immediate. Naïve and idealistic, Kali simply wants to express herself in her music and make a record. The hard-edged Fauna is interested only in using the group as a launching pad and starts rewriting Kali's sincere, anguished lyrics, which at times verge on parody, to steer them in a more commercial direction.
Fauna actually has the right idea if the Paper Dolls are going to get up and running, but her boundless, self-centered ambition inevitably poses a challenge to the group's future. Meanwhile, the lesbian Reggie fills her free time with heartless, casual sex, and Lavender knowingly risks her longtime relationship with her record store partner (a laid-back Shawn Robinson) to devote her energies to the band.
From this premise Voss works up mayhem, comedy and pathos that nonetheless invite a thoughtful consideration of what it takes to be a rock musician, leaving us not only entertained but admiring of those who have succeeded and endured.
In the earliest scenes, there is the sense that apart from the assured Poledouris -- a gifted actress, experienced lead singer and composer -- the cast is learning to act, but this feeling dissipates as the actors inhabit their roles. All are experienced musicians, as are those in key supporting roles, including Coyote Shivers, formerly of the Conspiracy, and Lemmy Kilmister, of the legendary '70s metal band Motorhead. A standout is Brendan O'Hara, also a musician, as the Paper Dolls' sweet-natured hanger-on who pines after Reggie.
The music is sensational, the energy level high, and "Down and Out With the Dolls" is a wise and funny treat.
'Down and Out With the Dolls'
MPAA rating: R, for strong sexuality, language and some drug/alcohol use
Times guidelines: Candid depiction of typical uninhibited, hard-living rock scene
Zoë Poledouris ... Fauna
Nicole Barrett ... Kali
Melody Moore ... Lavender
Kinnie Starr ... Reggie
Coyote Shivers ... Levi
An Indican Pictures release of a Whyte House production. Writer-director Kurt Voss. Producers Matt Hill, Nanda Rao. Executive producers Stephen Hill, Peter Hill. Cinematographer Tony Croll. Music Zoë Poledouris. Costumes Jill Lucas. Story, production design and associate producer Nalini DD Cheriel. Editors Clayton Halsey, Mick Erausquin. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes.
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