Down and Out with the Dolls

Down and Out with the Dolls

USA, 2002. Rated R. 87 minutes.

Cast: ZoŽ Poledouris, Nicole Barrett, Melody Moore, Kinnie Star, Brendan O'Hara, Coyote Shivers, Lemmy Kilmister, Shawn Robinson, Sierra Feldner-Shaw, Jennifer Shepard, Mikael Jehanno, Inger Lorre, Janis Tanaka
Writers: Kurt Voss (screenplay & story), Nalini Do Cheriel (story)
Music: ZoŽ Poledouris, Coyote Shivers (song "I Wanna Remember Tonight")
Cinematographer: Tony Croll
Producers: Matt Hill, Nanda Rao
Director: Kurt Voss


Grade: B Review by Carlo Cavagna

Read the AboutFilm interview with writer/director Kurt Voss.

Fuckheads and fuckwits, ambitious egomaniacs and drug-addled losers, jealousy and infidelity, exploitative assholes everywhere you turn, and stoner drummers who just want to rock--the underground music scene is the same anywhere in the USA. The sublime and the ridiculous in the lives of struggling rock musicians don't need to be exaggerated in mockumentary style, like in This is Spinal Tap, and they don't need a romantic comedy between a more conventional couple layered on top, like in Singles, to make a funny and compelling movie. They just need to be shown truthfully. Down and Out with the Dolls does just that.

Down and Out with the Dolls is the story of a grrrl band's modest rise and implosion just as it stands on the verge of success. Fauna (ZoŽ Poledouris) is the conniving, sexually manipulative frontwoman who will stop at nothing to get what she wants. Thrown out of her home and her locally legendary Goth band The Snogs by her ambiguously European boyfriend Paulo (Mikael Jehanno), she hooks up with guitarist Kali, whom Fauna scorns until she discovers Kali is friends with local-boy-made-god Levi, now lead singer of a famous punk outfit called the Suicide Bombers. Kali (Nicole Barrett), the group's primary songwriter, has a schoolgirl crush on Levi, and pens heartfelt though utterly banal lyrics expressing her woe, which Fauna invariably re-writes into more radio-friendly material. Lavender (Melody Moore), from whose point of view the movie is told, is the bassist who puts her relationship with Clark (Shawn Robinson) on the back burner to move into the band's dilapidated group house, dubbed The Dollhouse. Finally, there's Reggie (Kinnie Starr), the stoner drummer who, of course, just wants to rock. Though basically a lesbian, she keeps a convenient doormat boyfriend (Brendan O'Hara) around to haul equipment and set up her kit.The Paper Dolls: Lavender, Kali, Fauna, and Reggie

The Portland, Oregon-based quartet calls itself The Paper Dolls. The Dolls and their various hangers-on struggle with the usual contretemps of the rock-and-roll lifestyle, like a total lack of funds and the equitable allocation of household chores. These are not the brightest bulbs in the world, they're petty, and except for Fauna they have no business sense, but they are talented dreamers. Instead of choosing an explicitly satirical tone, writer/director Kurt Voss sympathizes with his hapless heroines. Yet he elicits the laughs, too, with vaguely absurd but realistic situations. The Paper Dolls just can't help themselves. They are doomed to failure by their own inability to get along. They're riot grrrls all right, except the rioting occurs within the band, culminating with tragicomic results at a two-day drunken bash to celebrate the Dolls' incipient success.

To enhance his naturalistic approach, Voss, who previously co-directed the rock-and-roll themed Sugar Town, has once again enlisted the aid of actual musicians. Lemmy Kilmister of MotŲrhead is the aging brain-fried roadie with an incomprehensible Cockney accent who lives in Fauna's closet--the only overtly surrealistic element of the film. Toronto-born singer/songwriter Coyote Shivers is Levi, the love interest that brings the simmering feud between Fauna and Kali to a head. Janis Tanaka of L7 and former Nymphs frontwoman Inger Lorre are among the Dolls hangers-on, who mostly spend their time consuming spectacular quantities of alcohol. There's even a character nicknamed Alco-Holly.

The women aren't really actors, though they do have a handful of screen and stage credits among them. Their lack of affectation works in their favor. They are comfortable enough, and Poledouris, with the showiest, snarliest role, dominates the screen. The film only requires that they be believable, not that they deliver tour-de-force performances.

The four stars are no strangers to music themselves. Poledouris is the eldest daughter of composer Basil Poledouris, whose grandiose work on Conan the Barbarian endures as one of the finest film scores ever. Just nine years old, ZoŽ Poledouris herself contributed the melody for "The Orgy" scene and received a composing credit. She has gone on to perform with various underground bands and score other films. Starr is a musician and performance artist who has released a few records, and Moore is working on her debut album. Barrett has been playing guitar since the age of twelve.

If you have any familiarity with the rock-and-roll scene at the bottom of the food chain, you will recognize much in Down and Out with the Dolls. Those moments of recognition are often how Voss gets his laughs. Indeed, with the pettiness and stupidity regularly on display on "reality" television, you don't even need to be a rock and roll insider, because human foibles remain the same whatever the context. Particularly when that context is an ill-advised group living situation.

Review © February 2003 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2002 Indican Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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