Four Documentaries about Women Artists You Can Stream Right Now

Since SWAN day (Support Women Artists Day) is all about supporting women artists, it seemed befitting to put together a list of four documentaries about women artists that you can stream at home. These films cover a spectrum of time and place, covering visual arts, film, and the performing arts. 

The Girls in the Band (2011)

While we have heard of  the big jazz greats like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, their female counterparts have been left out of the story. Notably, Lil Hardin Armstrong, Armstrong’s second wife, was an accomplished musician in her own right and led her own band that would propel Louis Armstrong into the starlight. There’s also great archival footage of the first all women interracial band, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. The film explores the gender and racial mores that musicians had to contend with. The documentary doesn’t just focus on the early part of the 20th century but brings in the voices of women working in jazz today. 

This documentary about the lost history of women in jazz changed my life. I’ve played alto saxophone my entire life and realized that I had never heard of a female horn player, much less saxophone player. This movie introduced me to the Vi Redd and Roz Cron, as well as trombonist Melba Lipton. The movie inspired me to do my own project about women artists in Chicago. 

But the story of the film also points to the reason we need more films about women.  Director Judy Chaikin told us that it took about ten years to get the funding to be able to put the film together. As frustrating and heartbreaking that may be, the film is here to stay. You can check it out on YouTube and other platforms. 

What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015) 

Liz Garbus’s documentary tells the life story of incredible singer Nina Simone. It’s an unflinching look at Simone’s life with its ups and downs. We see Simone’s early life as a child prodigy and her love of gospel music. As she became more famous, we see her become more involved with civil rights, and black activism. The film interweaves talking heads with archival footage of Simone singing, which is simply astonishing.

But the film does show the darker side of Simone’s life with abuse by her husband and manager, issues with mental illness, and more. Eventually, she would move to Liberia. It’s a story about music and pain. One fair criticism by the NYT was how the film overemphasized her ex-husband who constantly criticized Simone and her politics. A curious addition since the film talks about how he abused her. 

It’s a portrait of an unhappy but incredible musician. One scene that stands out to me from when I saw it for the first time was when she talks about how she wished she had been the world’s first Black classical pianist because she would have been happy. How heartbreaking.

You can stream the documentary on Netflix.

Kusama: Infinity (2018)

While most people may only know Yayoi Kusama for her famous Infinity Rooms, Kusama has been making a splash in the art scene for many decades. Heather Lenz’s documentary explores the life of the artist from her tragic upbringing to her life now. The film delves into her time in New York City as a young brilliant artist in the avant-garde scene from the 1950s to the 1970s. She knew the big players in the art scene such as Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg but, as is a common trope in the history of many women artists, these artists would steal her ideas and use them to leverage themselves into the starlight.

Struggling with mental illness and further exacerbated by her ideas being stolen, Kusama returned to Japan and eventually would live in a mental institution where she is today. But the film shows this woman’s vivacity and courage. She snuck her own work into the Venice Biennale in 1966 and engaged in public painting of nude bodies in NYC. It’s a story of pain, mental illness and resiliency to create the art that best suits our world. You can watch it on YouTube.

Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché (2018)

This last film is Pamela Green’s documentary of French film director Alice Guy-Blaché. I was so excited to see this film last year because I had been an early supporter of it when it started as a Kickstarter several years ago. Again, as a theme, it took a lot of time for the film to get the money it needed to be able to see the light of day. Thankfully it had some help from Jodie Foster and other Hollywood stars to bring it to light. 

Alice Guy-Blaché was a true pioneer of film. She was one of the first directors to see the potential of film for telling stories, as opposed to just recording daily life like trains. She would eventually start her own film studio, Solax, in Flushing, NY, (later moved to New Jersey) and was known for having the words “Be Natural” painted in the studio. Through the course of her career, she would make one thousand imaginative films. 

But after 1919, her name would largely be forgotten and many of her films attributed to her ex-husband. This film explores her life story and has rediscovered many of her old films that have not been seen in years. Check it out on YouTube.

There you have it, four films about female artists and their lives with a common theme of not being recognized for their work or fighting against racism and misogyny. 

© Elisa Shoenberger (3/20/20) FF2 Media

Featured Photo: What Happened, Miss Simone? (Credit: Netflix)

Middle Photo: Kusama: Infinity (Credit: Magnolia Pictures)’

Bottom photo: Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché (Credit: IMDb)

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