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Before I ever listened to the Indigo Girls, I knew them as a joke.
Growing up in the 90s and 00s, the Indigo Girls were synonymous with the word lesbian. And since it was the 90s and 00s, that was a bad thing.
Alexandria Bombach’s documentary It’s Only Life After All takes a moment to acknowledge this reputation. She shows Amy Ray and Emily Saliers clips from a Saturday Night Live sketch where they were parodied. Ray notes that she wouldn’t mind the joke if at any point in their careers they’d actually been invited on to perform. Then Bombach shows them clips from Ellen DeGeneres herself — moments where Ellen seems to say, yes, I’m gay. But I’m not gay like that.
If there’s one thing this documentary does, it’s show that Ellen was right. They are not gay like her. As a trans woman in my 20s, they may hold similar cultural places in my consciousness, but their differences are vast. And the ways the Indigo Girls were unique — and uniquely themselves — is worthy of this celebration.
Using countless tapes recorded by Ray over the years along with new interviews, Bombach stitches together a portrait of two queer people who were radical for their time and have strived to remain that way to this day.
If you’re a hardcore fan of the duo, you’ll find plenty to enjoy with the fantastic archive footage. And if you’re a casual fan or new to them, the film does a nice job giving an overview of their lives and careers.
The film covers their differing attitudes toward coming out, the way they were affected by sexism as well as homophobia, the communities they built and continue to foster, and their many differences as people and performers. And while their beliefs and place in the queer community was plenty established nearly a decade ago when they stopped playing Michfest, the film goes a step further and spends time on their individual identities. Saliers talks about having sexual attraction to men and how grateful she is for the word queer. Ray talks about having a non-binary gender identity and how young trans people have taught her so much about herself and her still-shifting relationship to her body.
The film also spends a lot of time on their activism, not just to lionize them, but to track how their views of the world have shifted. They’ve always been politically engaged and outspoken, but they acknowledge that initially their causes were very “white lesbian.” After meeting Indigenous activist Winona LaDuke in the early 90s, their environmentalism shifted to be through an Indigenous lens. The film shows how they’ve spent their lives trying to not only educate others but to educate themselves.
There is a burden to celebrity, another burden to being a queer celebrity, and yet another burden to being a queer celebrity thirty years ago. The film doesn’t ignore the impact of this burden — the frustrations, the anger, the jealousies, the alcoholism — but it does show how these two pushed through with music, friendship, and community.
It’s easier to deal with homophobia, sexism, and the many injustices of the world when you’re not alone. Amy Ray and Emily Saliers were never alone. They made themselves possible — they made each other possible. Saliers makes a point to say that while things have improved for some they have not for others. But we can carry on, like Ray and Saliers, with partners, collaborators, and chosen family.
We’re lucky to take their lessons — and their music — into the next fight.