Review: It’s great how ‘Girls Rock!’

Girls Rock! is the exception to the rule that an exclamation point in the title inevitably signals schlock. This engaging, provocative and sometimes poignant documentary demonstrates that rock can be just as much a liberating force today as in the 1950s that spawned it — and just as much needed by today’s girls.

At the Portland, Ore., Rock’n’Roll Camp for Girls — “We put the ‘amp’ in camp” — campers ages 8 to 18 come for a week to create bands, learn the rudiments of their craft, write a song and perform it at the closing showcase.

Local directors Arne Johnson and Shane King focus on four first-timers, each compelling enough for her own documentary: Hyper 15-year-old death-metal rocker Laura, a Korean-born adoptee, bounces between insecurity and aggrandizement on issues of body image, race and gender.

Amelia, 8, is an avant-garde poet/musician so profoundly original that she may always be an outsider — until the day she sells out the Warfield.

Misty, a 17-year-old survivor of gang life and meth addiction, reminds us of what Johnson calls “messy and dangerous reality.”

Singer Palace, a mesmerizing 8-year-old whose authoritarian social style brings her rejection, finds herself drawn to raw scream as a vocal style. Assertiveness is a priority on the camp’s agenda, as well as cooperation and conflict resolution. One camper’s mother expresses near-tearful gratitude to Rock Camp for teaching her daughter “how to be nice.”

It’s at least equally important, the film shows, that the camp also teaches girls how not to be nice, or, as Johnson puts it, “Not to just be nice, to be real.”

Interspersed throughout the film are shocking contemporary statistics relevant to girls, presented with humor and elan via Liz Canning’s animation and graphics that mesh well with the film’s super-grainy, deliberately anti-MTV aesthetic.

“Twice as many boys as girls say their talents are they like most about themselves,” reveals one. “Girls are twice as likely to say a body part is their best feature.”

If you don’t like rock, or think you don’t, no worries — the soundtrack features an excellent and accessible mix, from Shemo’s beautiful “America” to Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl.”

And no fear, either, of a relentless barrage of deafening decibels; the bands’ performances, as varied as the soundtrack, are saved for the film’s conclusion, maintaining, in keeping with the subject a focus on process rather than competition.

Not unlike the final minutes of Nashville, the showcase provides some marvelous performance surprises.

CREDITS

Girls Rock

Directed by Arne Johnson, Shane King

Not rated

Running time 1 hour, 30 minutes

Note: The filmmakers will appear at screenings today at San Francisco’s Embarcadero and at screenings Saturday at Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley. Also, a pre-show event begins at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at the Shattuck.

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