In the late 1980s, the queercore movement, comprised of LGBT artists and activists who resisted a perceived mainstreaming of the LGBT political agenda, revolted against the normalization of the LGBT community. They shunned corporate sponsorship and embraced a DIY aesthetic. In the early 1990s, several LGBT punk bands emerged from the queercore movement, including the all-female punk band Tribe 8.
Tracy Flannigan’s 2003 documentary, Rise Above, follows the San Francisco-based Tribe 8 and its passionate, individualistic members as they develop rock-star status in the punk scene. The film will be available on DVD on Sept. 12, 2006.
Inspired to make the documentary when she witnessed Tribe 8 at their South by Southwest show in 1998, Rise Above is Flannigan’s first feature-length film. In her director’s notes, she notes that she has “always been drawn to stories about outsiders and what is commonly overlooked or marginalized.” She found herself pulled to document Tribe 8 because she “appreciated the satirical spirit with which they approached otherwise uncomfortable themes of sexuality and power.”
The beautifully edited film takes the viewer back and forth between live concert footage — some of it quite shocking, in a wonderful way — and interviews with each band member. A controversial performance at the 1994 Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, when some festival-goers protested the band, is also interwoven into the movie. But the most interesting aspect of the film is that it allows us to see who these women are and how they survive as a band with no major label support.
Rise Above follows the five original band members: lead vocalist and songwriter Lynn Breedlove; guitarist Leslie Mah (recently seen in the documentary FtF: Female to Femme); guitarist Silas “Flipper” Howard (who went on to co-direct the film By Hook or By Crook); drummer Slade Bellum; and bassist Lynn “Tantrum” Payne. Each musician gets the spotlight in their turn as we learn about their childhoods, day jobs and lovers. Flannigan captures their stories with raw honesty and cleverly draws us into liking each band member, which prepares us to be on their side as we see them perform their shock-rock.
The center of the film is Lynn Breedlove, who comes off as an articulate, charming, adolescent boy. Breedlove has experienced incredible turbulence in her life, having been a serious drug addict in addition to struggling with issues of sexual identity. A highlight of the film is watching Breedlove be completely honest with her mother, revealing stories that most of us would never tell any relative. Remarkably, her mother is protective of Breedlove and totally accepting of who she is as a male-identified, butch lesbian.
The band is a multiracial group, which is rare not only in punk but in music in general. Leslie Mah and Tantrum have dealt with considerable pain, coming from racially mixed families; Mah is an Asian American and Tantrum is an African Canadian. Both recall being continually stared at while growing up and feeling like “freaks.” It is difficult to see the heightened outsider status both women have confronted, yet their voices lend tremendous power and diversity to Tribe 8.
Because of the band’s DIY ethic, they each find creative ways to make money to support their band habit. Some refuse to work for anyone else; Slade reluctantly works for Fed Ex; Tantrum works under the table as an illegal immigrant. Breedlove creates her own bike messenger business, Lickety Split, which delivers to over 300 nonprofits in San Francisco (Breedlove refuses to work for any corporations).