'Tomboy': Film Review | SXSW 2020

Shelter PR
Engaging and informative in a scattershot way.

A documentary follows four women drummers of different generations and musical styles, from Motown to metal, tracing their challenges in the music industry.

[Note: In the wake of the fest's cancellation this year, THR is reviewing select South by Southwest entries that elected to premiere digitally.]

How many women drummers can most people name? Tomboy pointedly doesn't try to fill that sparse category. Instead, this enlightening but uneven documentary profiles four representative drummers from different generations and with a range of musical styles. A first feature directed by Lindsay Lindenbaum, Tomboy (totally different from Celine Sciamma's drama with the same name) is smoothly made and often engaging, although its point is never clearly defined.  

The film was scheduled to screen at the SXSW Film Festival in the 24 Beats Per Second category, and is now part of the online festival SXSW put into place after live events were cancelled.

None of the four subjects is likely to be a familiar name outside the music world, even though the two veterans have had genuine success. Bobbye Hall starting playing congas for Motown artists in the 1960s and later toured with Bob Dylan. "You don't sound like a woman playing drums," Hall recalls being told when she was starting out, which was undoubtedly meant as a compliment. Samantha Maloney, now middle-aged, was a drummer for Hole and toured with Motley Crue in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The two other women are playing now and hoping for success. Chase Noelle is part of the three-woman, punk-influenced band Boytoy, seen here performing in small clubs in the U.S. and England. And teenaged Bo-Pah Sledge, who started drumming as a child, is part of The Sledge Grits Band, a pop group made up of her and her three sisters. A talented and ferocious drummer with a wild Afro and a charismatic smile, she leaps out of the film like a star in the making.

Lindenbaum fluidly weaves rich archival material into hit-or-miss recent interviews shot over the course of five years. The transitions from one section to the next offer smart contrasts, juxtaposing archival footage of Maloney's brash sound with a scene of Hall at home in Joshua Tree listening to softly playing jazz. There's a lot of jumping around from one character to another, but that strategy keeps the film moving.  

Oddly, it feels as if Lindenbaum decided to get the feminism out of the way early in the doc. There are comments from some of the women highlighting the way women drummers have typically been regarded. Looking back to the height of her career, Maloney says there was a stereotype "that girls didn't hit hard." She expresses the matter-of-fact tone and attitude of the entire film when she adds, "I did hit hard and why not? That's your job. You're a drummer."

After those early straightforward comments, Lindenbaum turns away from any cohesive or deep examination of sexism in music, focusing on the characters and their careers, letting revelations about broader issues pop up here and there. In a snippet from her tour with Motley Crue, Maloney is introduced as the beautiful woman behind them. Being a drummer comes second. There's a more accepting atmosphere in video of her in the dressing room with Courtney Love and Hole, the band sitting around casually rehearsing while Love gets her hair done. The film lets you draw your own conclusions about the difference between metal and girl-fronted bands. The archival segments of Maloney playing stadiums captures the headiness of reaching an enormous crowd. She says that drumming solo for a few bars at the start of a song, "I was controlling the way the audience was moving," and we see the evidence.

The film of Sledge is very different, with warm family scenes. She has a bedroom with shelves of My Little Ponys. The camera observes as the entire family — the sisters, their mother and their father, who has multiple sclerosis and is not able to walk — waits for the band's single to drop on iTunes.

The range of characters offers maximum contrast. Noelle talks of laying down a beat and says, "When a drummer makes a mistake, everything else falls apart." Other drummers have said similar things, but she makes it sound self-important. She is the weak link among the characters, a personality who always seems to be self-consciously posturing as a tough punk.

Hall, who has backed up musicians from The Temptations to Bill Withers, takes the opposite approach. She says she listens to the other instruments and the voices "and then I find a space that no one else occupies and it becomes mine."

The film skitters around from talking about careers to what those careers cost personally. Bobbye missed her daughter's first birthday while she was in Japan with Dylan. "Of course it was more difficult for a woman to be away from the home," she says about touring. It's hard to imagine that comment coming from someone in a younger generation. Bobbye flat-out says that she doesn't like to talk about the difficulty of being a black, single woman and a drummer in a man's world because it makes her feel vulnerable. You have to admire her honesty, although that guardedness makes her a less than ideal subject for a documentary.

Maloney provides a more affecting honest moment when she talks about how she has tried, and failed, to become pregnant despite several rounds of IVF. She tears up while saying she blames herself for not having tried to have a child sooner.

The doc offers a kind of conclusion. At the end, we see bands and relationships take a break, and hear about recent personal sorrows that even music can't console. But Tomboy remains a grab bag of ideas and observations. Is sexism as pervasive a problem for drummers now as it was? If not, when did the turn start? The film evokes those questions and others without really addressing them. But it does make one definite point: Being a woman drummer shouldn't be anything unusual.

Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (24 Beats Per Second)
Production companies: Engel Entertainment, Tomboy Film
Cast: Bobbye Hall, Samantha Maloney, Chase Noelle, Bo-Pah Sledge
Director-cinematographer: Lindsay Lindenbaum
Producers: Eleanor Emptage, Lindsay Lindenbaum
Executive producers: Steven M. Engel, Helen D. "Heidi" Reavis
Editor: Sandra Itainen
Original music: Tune-Yards
Sales: Cargo Film & Releasing

95 minutes