Portland area music scene opens its doors to a girl-band movie
With the possible exception of John Belushi and his frat brothers stumbling through 'Louie, Louie' in 'Animal House,' our local music scene has never really been cinematically documented.
While movies such as 'Singles,' 'Light of Day' and even 'Purple Rain' tell stories of love, alienated youth and ambition set against a backdrop of regional rock 'n' roll, Portland has yet to receive such star treatment. That is, until now.
Director-writer Kurt Voss ('Sugar Town,' 'Horseplayer,' 'Border Radio' and a frequent collaborator with Allison Anders) and writer-musician Nalini 'D.D.' Cheriel pooled their talents and hatched 'Down & Out With the Dolls,' a raw, funny and seat-of-the-pants indie film that follows a mythical all-girl punk band called the Paper Dolls from zenith to nadir.
It's a fairly typical rock band story, with the girls assembling the band, rehearsing, getting gigs, getting signed to a record deal, dealing with one another's idiosyncrasies and, inevitably, breaking up.
Along the way they fight over creative differences and lovers, particularly Kali (Nicole Barrett), the naive songwriter, and Fauna (Zo‘ Poledouris), the scheming and cynical singer, who both want the attention of local rock star Levi (Coyote Shivers).
Cheriel knows this subject inside and out after playing drums with several bands in the area during the '90s, including Juned, Teen Angels and Adickdid.
'I was telling Kurt all these stories about the bands I was in, and he thought they were pretty funny,' Cheriel says.
'While she was telling me these anecdotes and I was laughing over and over, it occurred to me that it would make an interesting movie treatment,' Voss says. 'I'm always looking for a good story.
'Portland's music scene kind of reminds me of Havana,' he continues. 'It's like a fly in amber. It hasn't really changed much in the last 10 years.'
Almost four years ago, Voss shot film in the Portland area for 28 days, using locations such as Satyricon, the skate park under the Burnside Bridge and Discourage Records as sets.
'I'm actually used to 18-day shoots,' the L.A.-based Voss explains. 'But we had to deal with rain and clouds and other things.
'We were shooting a scene in the skate park, and some kid on a BMX bike fell and knocked all his teeth out. We had to cut the scene while the ambulance came for him.'
Cheriel also volunteered her own Northeast Portland abode to serve as 'the Doll House,' where the four girls live, rehearse and eventually throw a two-day blowout party.
'I live in Los Angeles now,' Cheriel says. 'So a lot of the stuff you see in the house belongs to the punk kids who are renting it. It had to look genuine.'
As it turns out, authenticity and credibility were more important to the director and writer than professionalism. The decision to use actual musicians to play the Paper Dolls was at the top of Voss' list. Principal actors Barrett and Kinnie Starr are cinematic neophytes, and at times it shows.
'I definitely wanted girls who could play instruments,' Voss says.
'It's a very green cast,' Cheriel says. 'But what they lack in acting skills they make up for in enthusiasm, and when you're on a low-budget shoot with few luxuries, enthusiasm is very important.
'Nicole (Barrett, a U of O liberal arts student) even wanted to do her own stunts, which included getting hit in the head with a garbage can lid during a fight scene. She probably got hit like 20 times!'
Sharp-eyed viewers will spot local musicians Mikael Jehanno and Kate Merril of Papillon and Alan Charing from A.C. Cotton in supporting roles. All three acquit themselves well, particularly Jehanno, who displays marvelous comic timing in the part of a Eurotrash musician and scenester.
Also in the cast is Motorhead bassist and singer Lemmy Kilmister, who plays a mysterious guy named Joe who lives in Fauna's closet.
As for the merits of the movie itself, it certainly succeeds in its efforts to capture the sensibilities and ennui of Portland's post-college, bohemian set. This is especially apparent during the extended party sequence, where everything looks, sounds and almost smells like a rock 'n' roll bash reaching the meltdown stage.
'I miss those days,' Voss says. 'At times I was jealous of the way the characters lived. Responsibility hasn't taken hold of them yet.'
The acting by the inexperienced cast is, at times, not so hot, and there are some clunker, eye-rolling bits of dialogue. Let's face it, this isn't 'Doctor Zhivago.' But 'Down & Out With the Dolls' has vitality, pluck and imagination. Would a big-budget movie have a pivotal scene based on two girls chasing each other on bikes with one hurling bottles of beer at the other?
'After we got the story and cast together, the whole production was very much like, 'Hey, kids, let's put on a show! We can use the old barn down the street!' I think that spirit shows up in the movie,' Voss says.
'Portland is kind of a strange and wonderful place, and my hope was to capture a little bit of that.'