Probably the coolest takeaway from Welcome to the Club: The Women of Rockabilly is when a historian points out that cultural change precedes political change. That is, pioneering women musicians of the early 20th century helped foster the notions that propelled the modern feminist movement. Director Beth Harrington's 2001 documentary is a foray into the boundary-busting women of the proto-rock scene in the 1950s. Performers like Charline Arthur, Wanda Jackson, Janis Martin and Brenda Lee were wearing pants, boogying on stage and calling the shots on their careers way before it was cool. Today, they're mostly forgotten, especially compared to their male counterparts like Johnny Cash, Elvis, Chet Atkins and Carl Perkins.
Rockabilly, which originated out of white hillbilly music and black R&B, helped introduce big hair, big outfits and dance-worthy beats to mainstream American music. It quickly morphed into the rock and roll that outlasted it. Welcome to the Club's entertainment value rests on memorable archival footage of old concerts and the witty ladies it interviews in the present day, like Jackson and Martin, who still rock sparkly outfits, bandanas and teased hair some 50 years after they first started playing music.
Martin and Jackson recount the ups and downs of a music career in a time when it was frowned upon for women to have careers at all. Martin remembers her nicknames, like "The Female Elvis," "Queen of Rockabilly" and, she says with a laugh, "bitch." Martin got married in her teens, in defiance of her virginal, innocent image that her record label tried to cultivate. When she got pregnant, record executives suggested she abort because they didn't want a married woman with a child being a professional musician. Jackson, meanwhile, recalls how she toured with one of the first racially integrated bands; her black piano player, Big Al Dowling, was almost kicked out of a club in Butte, Mont., until she said she wouldn't perform without him.
The film takes a little bit of time to connect early female musicians with burgeoning feminism: "Betty Friedan comes after Wanda Jackson," says historian Mary Bufwack. I wish Welcome dug a little deeper, or at least talked to some current musicians about whether they find women like Jackson inspiring. And while there's some great footage of black R&B singers of the era like Mahalia Jackson, it's a bummer no black women are interviewed about their contributions.
The film's end jumps into the rockabilly revival, which started in Europe in the late '70s and '80s. Women like Martin were gratified to receive some of their due when they were invited to tour Europe and eventually play rockabilly conventions here in America. It's cool to watch Martin stride out on a Vegas stage, belting out tunes and holding a beer bottle.
The film also subtly presents a case for why we still need to tell stories about the sexism and racism of the '50s, a supposedly idyllic time in America. At a rockabilly convention, young women sporting tidy victory curls and classic frocks say with a straight face that they like retro rockabilly because the '50s seem like a simpler, better time. Facepalm.
It's satisfying to watch films like Welcome to the Club and be relieved that the overt sexism of that era is gone, but let's face it, American mainstream music culture isn't much better today. Women are still underrepresented in rock. Men are still much more likely to receive credit for innovating. Women performers can certainly wear provocative outfits and dance on stage, but they're often forced to walk a fine line between being youthfully sexy but not too sexual. Stay within these bounds and you get Katy Perry's not-so-innocent goofy slut persona; stray out of it and you're wrecking-ball Miley Cyrus.
Regardless of whether you want to make a sociological study out of Welcome to the Club, it's a lighthearted, fun watch if you dig early rock music. Its 60-minute running time is all too brief, but that leaves more time to go peruse old vinyl bins for some Wanda Jackson records.
Welcome to the Club: The Women of Rockabilly screens at the Top Hat Mon., April 14 at 7:30 PM as part of the Big Sky Documentary Film Series. Free.