By Andrea Thompson
The SXSW documentary “Tomboy” doesn’t so much follow the lives of four female drummers as pay tribute to both them and the women who have stood firm in a male-dominated industry. Director Lindsay Lindenbaum follows four very different women – each of whom found their passion at very different times – over the course of five years as each faces their own struggles, sorrows, and yes, triumphs. This deeply personal approach is the movie’s great strength and its weakness, embedding us in the life and work of each subject, often with footage provided by themselves, yet not exactly pushing any of them towards a greater narrative.
That’s fair if a filmmaker isn’t interested in pushing a narrative, but “Tomboy” is often more akin to a series of personal vlogs that’ve been spliced together than a documentary. Occasionally this is quite beautiful, and you get deeply moving moments that include one of its subjects experiences of being asked to donate her drums to the Motown Museum, or another grieving her supportive father’s death from multiple sclerosis. But it also means that casually sexist moments, such as Mötley Crüe calling their drummer “one of the guys” one moment, then casually mentioning how great it is to see a beautiful woman behind them the next, or jokingly asking if she’d marry one of them. Call it a signifier of a bygone era (the long ago days of 1999 or 2000), but when the youngest being followed is at a radio interview and the host remarks about how tall and hot she’s gotten, right in front of her sister no less, there’s no pushback whatsoever, and they end by thanking the host for having them on.
Such moments don’t represent a hole so much as gaping, devouring jaws, complete with fangs ready to be extracted. Overdramatic? Perhaps, but my point remains. How much have things changed…and not changed? How do these women feel about such casually flippant remarks, then and now? Does it vary by generation? Since none of the four women “Tomboy” follows actually meet on-screen, none of them get together and compare notes, but all of them have a story about the role sexism plays in their lives and careers, even if they generally seem to disregard it. This is not due to ineptness on Lindenbaum’s part; early on she proves her adeptness in giving her audience needed information, such as why the drummer is such an important component of the band, and just what kind of sound defined each of the very distinctive musical eras these women came up in. But audiences also have needs beyond basic nutrition, and Lindenbaum’s desire to show rather than tell at all costs means that what could have been a far richer feast comes off as rather flavorless at times.