Synopsis: For two years a filmmaker follows the all girl rock band Betty Blowtorch documenting the bands ferocious sound and dangerously low-tech pyrotechnic show, unaware of the turmoil and tragedy that he will ultimately capture. The award winning documentary chronicles the rise of the hard rocking, foul-mouthed female foursome from its roots to its tragic end with the death of the leader Bianca Butthole.
eyelights: BB’s badass, brassy balls attitude.
eyesores: the unfortunate way that the band ended.
Betty Blowtorch are a rock band from Los Angeles that played together from 1998 to 2001. Formed from the ashes of Butt Trumpet, by Bianca Butthole (lead vocals, bass), Sharon Needles (rhythm guitar, vocals), Blare N. Bitch (lead guitar) and Judy Molish (drums), they immediately caught fans’ attention with their decadent shows and rockin’ tunes.
I first discovered them in the early days of my stint at CHUO 89.1FM, while sifting through their catalogue. I stumbled upon BB’s debut album and couldn’t help but be drawn by an all-girl rock band whose album title was ‘Are You Man Enough?’. Combined with their song titles, I immediately got the impression of a ballsy, tongue-in-cheek band.
An all-woman band, it should be noted.
The reason I highlight this is that, in the wake of Britney Spears and the Spice Girls, the ’90s Riot Grrrl movement seemed to have collapsed. Suddenly, women who challenged the status quo and played as hard as men did were nowhere to be found. Being a small-scale feminist, I suddenly found myself grabbing music by any all-women band.
This is when my interest for L7 began (I had known about them for years, but hadn’t bothered until then), picked up albums by Drain STH, 7 Year Bitch, Babes In Toyland, Jack Off Jill, The Runaways, and later discovered The Donnas – by far my favourite all-girl band. A part of me felt the urge to balance the scales that pop divas had tipped.
Betty Blowtorch is another favourite of mine. While they only have the one album (and a leftovers compilation CD called ‘Last Call’), I was drawn in by their catchy hooks, muscular riffs and unrepentant party girl attitude. They’re a lot of fun, like a female version of all those all-too-familiar cock-rock bands (Mötley Crüe immediately comes to mind).
Now, it would be easy for people to dismiss my interest in B.B. by saying (or merely thinking) that their sex appeal is the selling point for me. But that would be wrong: while it may very well be the case for others, I actually detest the look of grimy, tattooed-to-death rocker chicks; it is and never was my thing. I just want to wipe those tats off, clean them up.
Honestly, my interest stems from the fact that I love women who outplay and outdo men at their own game.
Betty Blowtorch not only did that, but they earned men’s respect in the process. Some of their fans were other rockers, males, who were impressed with their on-stage antics, attitude and musicianship. In fact, no less than Duff McKagan (of Guns ‘n Roses and Velvet Revolver fame) produced their first recordings!!!
Part of their appeal in some cases (based on some of the interviews the band gave) may have been their unapologetically overt sexuality, mind you; Betty Blowtorch had no qualms with talking dirty like any guy rocker would – but turning the tables and telling the guys exactly what was expected of them. They owned their sexuality.
They certainly didn’t cater to men, which may also explain why their earned the admiration of female fans as well. In a society that still wedges women in a small box, these $#!t-kicking women rocking the tunes and shouting their @$$es off fulfilled the fantasies of women who wished that they could do the same, providing an outlet.
They were also role models of sorts. I’m not saying that one should mirror their approach to life, hardly, but they at least offered another perspective at a time when it was most needed. Although they weren’t the first to do this, they kept the fires burning for women who didn’t want to be pigeonholed as girly girls. These girls were anything but.
This is perfectly established throughout ‘Betty Blowtorch and Her Amazing True Life Adventures’, a feature-length documentary on the band that was released to little fanfare in 2006, with the amusing juxtaposition of Betty Boop cartoons. Here we are shown traditional views of women and then shown these rocker chicks hard at work and play.
Unfortunately, Betty Blowtorch’s approach is deeply routed in Bianca’s troubled past: she was an incest survivor and a recovered heavy drug addict – who only started to play after she cleaned up. She channeled her anger at the world and her !@#$-you attitude in her songs (ex: “Get Off”), exorcising ghosts and trying to rise above her past.
This is addressed to some degree in the film, which goes back to Betty Blowtorch’s genesis, Butt Trumpet, who caused controversy and splintered not long after the band got rid of Thom Bone, their founder and frontman, under uncertain circumstances (there are conflicting stories from the band members about the reasons for his departure).
But all the drama behind his ousting laid the groundwork for the new band: Bianca and the others wanted to continue playing together but couldn’t as Butt Trumpet, sued as they were by Thom, who wasn’t pleased with losing control of his own band. Plus which they got dropped by their record label. Out of the band’s ashes came Betty Blowtorch.
The documentary doesn’t dig especially deep, unfortunately. Although Anthony Scarpa interviews the band members, we never find out why they picked this band name, how they found their drummer, where they all came from and found themselves there. Aside for its brief biographical information on Bianca, the band members remain mysteries.
In fact, Bianca is set as the band’s centrepiece and leader. It starts with the story of why she became the frontwoman for Butt Trumpet, gives us glimpses into her personal life (including a quick tour of her home), and eventually focuses on her final days – and the band’s dissolution in the aftermath of her untimely death.
The band’s demise is probably the event that’s explored the most, with Sharon and Judy leaving mid-tour, in the middle of the night, with all the band’s gear (a juvenile way to handle discontentment, to say the least), and how Bianca managed to keep the tour going by pulling a few favours. Naturally, Bianca’s passing is also discussed to some length.
Otherwise, most of the material in ‘BBAHATLA’ is a collection concert footage, behind-the-scenes material (including a studio visit by Vanilla Ice), some road material, television appearances, news footage and many interviews with the band members. It’s nowhere as insightful as one is led to believe by the DVD box or the online write-ups.
If anything, ‘Betty Blowtorch And Her Amazing True Life Adventures’ is a rock and roll journey with some of the crudest, crassest, most balls-out rock “chicks” out there. Although viewers don’t come out of it with a deep understanding of the band and its members they get a bird’s eye view of a rock band rising – and then self-destructing.
Now, for fans who simply can’t get enough of Betty Blowtorch and for those who want to explore them a bit more, there are tons of bonus features on this DVD. If one were to include the audio commentaries, we’re looking at a total of approximately 4.5 hours of extras. Nuts. Absolutely nuts – especially for a fringe band.
The first part of the special features are a handful of music videos, most of which seem to be cobbled from some of the same footage that was used during the main documentary. I have no idea if they were released at the time or if these were put together post-mortem. Either way, they’re decent -if uninspired- DIY rock videos.
(Nota bene: I subjectively rated the songs and videos separately, in the following format: song/video)
1. Love/Hate: Although this is a studio track, the video consists mostly of concert footage, behind-the-scenes studio bits and shots of them on the road. It starts with Bianca talking to a crowd, then the studio track kicks in. I love this song: it’s high energy, has catchy vocals, and great riffs; these girls rock. The video ends with some banter between Bianca and a recording studio engineer. 8.0/6.5
2. Strung Out: This one starts with another live intro by Bianca. It’s all concert footage taken from various shows. It doesn’t look or sound very good – it’s barely a step up over bootleg material. The audio could actually be live, actually. Anyway, it’s too raw to do them justice; the album version is far superior. 5.0/5.5
3. Rock My World: Guess what? This one also starts with an intro by Bianca. It’s also concert footage, but this one’s culled from only one performance, from two angles. For this one they had a go-go dancer using a spray can to shoot flames during the bridge. It’s a bit lame. But the song rocks. I especially love the boldness of Bianca singing about masturbation. Even in this sex-soaked pop culture, it’s a dirty secret that women masturbate; pop divas’ sexuality revolve around men. Ahem… and sometimes ladies. WTF. 7.0/6.0
4. I’m Ugly and I Don’t Know Why: This is basically a cover of a song they used to do with Butt Trumpet, with Sharon vocals instead of Bianca (Bianca became the lead singer later on). It’s a studio track but the video is concert footage from various sources. In one of the shows, Sharon has an “Evil Beaver” top on. Nice. The song stands out from the rest of their material, being a bluesy hard rock number with a pop vocal. The lyrics are juvenile but funny. Anyway I like the song: it’s catchy and it rocks. 7.5/6.0
5. Hell On Wheels: This is the same footage that opened the documentary. It’s an unfinished, but professionally-made video that finds them stage but that was clearly rehearsed and not shot live. It’s a great promo for the band; it makes them look good. I love that they each get a caption to introduce them. The song is awesome, there’s lightning, sparkles, and fire. Who could ask for more? The video gives them a ballsy rock image. Nice. 7.5/7.5
In a section called “Where Are They Now?”, we visit with each of the band members as well as some of the people behind the scenes to find out what their thoughts are some years later, and to catch up with them. Each of these interviews are available separately and vary in length.
Blare N. Bitch: Blare talks about dealing with the loss of Bianca, the what ifs of giving her a lift instead of partying with the others that night and letting her find her own ride. She talked about her musical endeavours, said that she’s sober now and runs a yoga studio.
Sharon Needles: Sharon talks about the fallout of leaving the band and Bianca’s passing, about getting married, getting pregnant, and her new band. She also talked about a heart condition she developed and the surgery that saved her life.
Judy Molish: Judy had a terrible time talking about the incident, about losing Bianca, despite all that happened on the road. She talked about playing in Cheap Chick, an all-girl cover band of Cheap Trick, and about freelancing.
Kelly Spencer: Kelly discusses the events surrounding Bianca’s death (including the last call she received from Bianca and a humourous story about their trip to the coroner), the impact it had on her and how it led her to sign Supagroup, the band that was opening for Betty Blowtorch at the time.
J.J.: He talks about seeing Bianca for the last time – it was the first time in years. He said that they finally got closure, and somehow knew they wouldn’t see meet again.
Thom Bone: In brief, Bone told us that Butt Trumpet was back with a new line up and EP. He didn’t have much else to say.
There’s a video recording of the eulogy by Bianca’s dad did at her funeral. I didn’t realize that the incest allegations were against her step-father, so I found the eulogy disquieting at first. Then I realized I had misunderstood the situation. In any case, in this 15-minute eulogy, her dad tells people about Bianca’s history, including childhood memories, to the delight of the people in attendance. It was touching and humourous. Frankly, he acquitted himself rather well in what must have been a very difficult moment. We actually learn more about Bianca here than in the doc (but, in all fairness, the doc wasn’t about her, per se).
There’s also an interview with Anthony Scarpa, the director of the documentary (and, presumably, some of the videos). He talks about being asked by Kelly to make a video to promote the band. Instead he suggested making a 3-minute promotional film, so he was asked to keep following them. He eventually saw a movie in it, which led to this documentary. It took him five years from start to finish. He talked about his intention and admitted that he’s friends with Judy and Sharon but that he tried to stay out of it and just portray what he saw, not what he thought/felt at the time.
The final set of special features consists of a few dozen Polaroids by Bianca, most of them with scribbled notes on them.
There are also a couple of hidden gems that you can find by messing around with the menus. There may be more, but these are the only two that I’ve found.
1. In the Main Menu, you’ll find a video for the “Betty Blowtorch Anthem”, which was recorded on their ‘Get Off’ EP. The video consists of the band performing outside, in a brick-walled enclosure. There are explosions, and two gothy dancing girls firing up blowtorches while dancing. There’s also footage of them driving down a road in a jeep in the middle of the day. And then there’s a shot of a bunch of guys replacing them, wearing wigs, pretending to be them, and then getting pushed out of the way by Betty Blowtorch, who return to their rightful place. It ends with all of them posing with an explosion behind them. It’s a repetitive but fun anthem. 6.75/6.75
2. In the Videos section, you’ll find a 9-minute set of outtakes from the documentary. The first part is on the road with Kelly Spencer and the filmmakers as they follow the band to a gig, joshing back and forth on the CB. Then she talks about giving up if BB doesn’t work out; they’re perfect in every way, she says. She adds that if it doesn’t work she’ll become a bingo caller. He suggests that she should sign more bands, that she’s good at that. The next bit is in a hotel room with Bianca, recounting a story about going to the corner store with Sharon while she was pissed drunk. Everyone seems to find this rather funny. Finally, there’s a short bit of Bianca joking with the cameraman. 7.0
But that’s not all! There are also two audio commentaries: one with Blare and director Anthony Scarpa, and one with Sharon and Judy with Scarpa. Blare isn’t very talkative and that track isn’t especially insightful, but Judy is energetic, and that trio have a very good dynamic. They don’t have much to add but they’re a good listen.
The most notable part of the Judy/Sharon track is that they comment on the opinions expressed on the break-up the band. They also pointed out that the gear wasn’t actually stolen (as many claimed) and that you can see it in use in later concert footage. I just wish that they had better explained the events in detail from their perspective.
Still, for fans, ‘BBAHATLA’ is as candid a look at Betty Blowtorch as they’re ever going to get. For others, it’s an eye-opener: girl bands don’t have to be pop fabrications that sell their sexuality for success. Women are as capable as men of picking up instruments and playing hard, fast and without compromise. Women can rock your world.
More of them should.
Date of viewing: January 18, 2015