“It’s Only Life After All,” a documentary about the folk-rock duo Indigo Girls, is for fans only. For those who are not fans, and for those who only dimly remember their initial albums in the late 1980s and early 1990s, this Sundance Film Festival Opening Night entry is a rambling, unrevealing look at their lives and careers that director Alexandria Bombach allows to run over two hours without focusing her material.
Amy Ray and Emily Saliers met in grammar school, and Saliers was one grade ahead of Ray. During the extensive interviews with them in this movie, a hazy picture emerges of Ray as the driving force of their act, or the one with the most ambition, and Saliers as the more elusive or distant of the two. They came up the hard way through gigs in bars and clubs, and their breakout hit was the song “Closer to Fine” in 1989.
Though they were never a romantic couple, Ray and Saliers were both lesbians in a time when very few performers were out of the closet. Ray says that she wanted to come out publicly but that Saliers was more reluctant, understandably so given the time period. There is interview footage where they are both asked what or who they find sexy, and Ray says, “Jean-Luc Picard on ‘Star Trek’!” This is a painful moment, the sort of thing that Jodie Foster used to throw out in interviews.
Indigo Girls made the plunge into being out artists by the early 1990s and dealt with the extensive flak they received for that decision. Bombach provides little context about other lesbians in the music scene of that era like Melissa Etheridge and k. d. lang, instead drawing out Ray and Saliers on their feelings of self-loathing, which marked them then and still seem to mark them today.
Past their initial burst onto the scene, Indigo Girls got categorized very quickly as overly earnest and humorless, and Jon Pareles wrote a pan of their act for The New York Times that still seems to rankle them today. Of the two, Ray is the most self-critical, and she even agrees with parts of Pareles’ critique. “He’s not wrong about some of this stuff,” Ray says, “that’s why it’s hard.” Saliers takes the safer route of saying that men might get away with their brand of earnestness, but she does not venture any male names for comparison.
Bombach keeps confronting her two subjects with negative feedback like this — including a comedy sketch with Rachel Dratch and Amy Poehler sending them up on “Saturday Night Live” — and expecting Ray and Saliers to work out their feelings for us; some of the pressure would be off of them if she had interviewed some journalists to put Indigo Girls in some kind of cultural or political context. Worse than this, Bombach sometimes makes judgments of her own that may or may not jibe with what her subjects are saying.
At one point in “It’s Only Life After All,” Saliers is trying to define their genre of music, and she says that some folk singers were too quiet and too “serious about themselves,” and Bombach cuts to an image of Judy Collins without identifying her. Aside from the comedy of one of the Indigo Girls speaking about other artists being too serious about themselves, this seeming diss of Collins might or might not originate with Saliers. (And it doesn’t help their case that Collins just released an album of all-new original material called “Spellbound” that ranks with her very best work.)
It comes as no surprise that Indigo Girls have uncritically embraced the political issues of the younger generation. If they were starting out today, they would likely be happier and freer in their personal lives, but they would almost certainly be as insufferable to their detractors, just in a different way.
The most serious flaw of “It’s Only Life After All” is that Bombach has us spend so much time with these women, yet we learn so little about them. There is a long section about one of their political mentors, Indigenous activist Winona LaDuke, but we learn almost nothing about the specific environmental issues they are working on with her. Saliers speaks at length about her drinking problem, but we hear nothing specific about it, and Ray barely comments on it.
In the last scene, when Saliers speaks to a makeup artist about kindness and being kind, the effect is unsettling, and maybe the reason for that is that such earnestness carries with it a naïveté that does not really allow for evil or fighting evil because essentially it does not recognize it — and that’s a problem that none of the preachy harmonies of this folk-rock duo can adequately address.
“It’s Only Life After All” makes its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.