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A Dull Ani DiFranco Doc

A Dull Ani DiFranco Doc

You know you’re wasting time on a documentary when you feel the urge to Wikipedia its subject while you’re in the middle of watching an entire feature film devoted to them. And once I had finished Dana Flor’s tedious music biodoc 1-800-ON-HER-OWN, I oddly felt like I knew even less about folk-rock legend Ani DiFranco than I did going into it. At a mere 80 minutes, the film should at least come across as tight and succinct (and chock full of information). Instead, the narrative mostly centers DiFranco’s muted pandemic years — were they interesting for anyone? — and offers only a surface-level retelling of her rise to prominence in the 1990s, her innovations as an artist-entrepreneur and her songwriting prowess.

It’s hard not to compare 1-800-ON-HER-OWN to more compelling punkumentaries about defiant female musicians of the 90s, including It’s Only Life After All (2023), a deeply introspective examination of the Indigo Girls, and L7: Pretend We’re Dead (2016), a pure-at-heart hangout flick consisting mostly of archival footage from the band’s touring heyday. Despite these docs’ opposing filmmaking styles (a story told mostly through interview versus a story told mostly through montage), they’re still able to impart something meaningful about these artists who resisted “rock chick” stereotypes.

1-800-ON-HER-OWN

The Bottom Line

Tedious and meandering.

Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight+)
Director: Dana Flor

1 hour 19 minutes

In contrast, aside from joyfully showcasing DiFranco’s ever-changing fashion choices across her prime — from buzz cuts to cerulean dreadlocks to platinum blonde coifs — 1-800-ON-HER-OWN does not exactly allow us to revel in the years that made DiFranco a cult superstar. We barely even learn what drew her to music and songwriting to begin with.

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Now, Flor doesn’t pretend DiFranco is some music industry martyr the way Sinead O’Connor is framed in 2022’s Nothing Compares: Modern-day DiFranco is the first to admit her regrets and mistakes as a wife, parent, musician and businesswoman. In fact, her candid reflections imbue the film with a distinctive dreariness as she recounts the naïve/idealistic business dealings of her younger years that have led her to feeling broke in her 50s. (The tragedy of editing has us watch contemporary DiFranco complain about having no money only a few moments before her 20-something self in old interview footage eschews the capitalistic need for money.) Current-day DiFranco is evidently bitter that she continues to need to tour to earn cash, especially as she briefly alludes to the fact that the grueling nature of road life contributes to her marital strife and keeps her away from her kids during critical times in their development. In other words, she resents still having to strum for her supper.  

My chief disappointment with the film stems from its incohesive biography. We’re treated to a few vague facts about the subject’s origins in Buffalo, New York, and her relationship with her apparently distant First Wave feminist mother. Yet it’s all told in such coded language and generalities that I was never sure what I was supposed to take away from the scant information we do receive about her upbringing and early career. We’re privy to more direct history of the independent record label she cofounded at age 20 in 1990, Righteous Babe Records (which spawned the former real-life phone number of the film’s title), but the film provides negligible incisive commentary on DiFranco’s talent or what makes her socially conscious hard folk music so enticing to fans.

Much of the film is spent with a mature DiFranco just a little bit before and then during the COVID-19 pandemic, when she connects with a Bon Iver songwriting retreat/program to learn how to collaborate with others during the writing process. A fiercely independent artist, she admits that partnership during album development is a weakness she’s eager to master. Narrative time that could be spent further elucidating DiFranco’s early stardom and sui generis gifts is instead squandered on dull scenes of her trying to make this new endeavor successful. It’s a snooze.

She’s mildly shocked when someone from that venture confesses their dynamic isn’t working for either of them, implying that perhaps she’s too comfortable in her individuality to effectively work in partnership to create an album after all. Eventually, though, she releases her 2021 studio record Revolutionary Love to critical acclaim. I’m happy for DiFranco’s accomplishment while acknowledging that the visual document depicting it isn’t exactly one itself.

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