Beth Harrington

It’s been said that every filmmaker secretly wants to be a rock star, and vice versa. Beth Harrington has been both. In what she calls “a former lifetime,” she performed with Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers. She’s since worked on an array of documentary programs, from NOVA to Frontline to Health Quarterly. But her most recent independent documentary, Welcome to the Club: The Women of Rockabilly, finds her with a foot planted squarely each world.

“You always wind up making films and thinking they’re about somebody else, and then you find out they’re about you, on some level,” says Harrington, whose previous film (The Blinking Madonna and Other Miracles) was largely autobiographical.

Rockabilly—a vigorous cross-pollination of R&B, country, and “hillbilly” music—is considered the forerunner of rock and roll. It’s also largely remembered as the province of men like Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins. But Harrington was introduced to the feminine side of rockabilly twenty years ago, through a compilation album. “With a few exceptions I didn’t know the women on the anthology and I thought that was really weird, because I followed music really closely.” she says.

Weirder still, it turns out these women were celebrities—big celebrities—in their own time. Janis Martin was so loved by Elvis Presley that she was given permission directly from the King to tout herself as “the female Elvis.” Wanda Jackson was described by music journalist Nick Tosches as “the greatest menstruating rock ‘n’ roll singer whom the world has ever known.”
Harrington was hooked.

“I’m interested in the way history gets told, and how certain stories get legitimized by the media,” she says. “It’s also an interesting way of telling women’s history. Where were we in the 1950’s, and where are we now? I think a lot of younger women are surprised at some of the things that seemed like constraints [to one’s career] in 1950, like getting married.”
Harrington began Welcome to the Club, her second independent feature as director, in 1997. In the years since her gig with Richman, she worked on an assortment of documentary films, most notably for the Documentary Guild, which produces exclusively for Boston’s WGBH. She credits much of her production savvy to her work with the Guild. “I learned from [the Documentary Guild] the value of really conceptualizing what you’re doing, the value of going on scouting trips, and the value of spending time with the people who’ll be in the film. When you’re an independent, you sort of feel like you need to cut corners somewhere, and [you think] maybe that’s where you can cut corners,” she says. “In fact, that’s not where you can cut corners. That’s the place where you shouldn’t cut corners.”

Sometimes, though, you have to be prepared to go with the flow. Having procured just the first chunk of money for Welcome to the Club from the Pacific Pioneer Fund, which helps emerging filmmakers—”people who aren’t household names,” says Harrington—in California, Oregon, and Washington, Harrington abruptly found herself swept into production. “Within a week of getting the money, Wanda Jackson came to Portland for the first time in thirty years. And it was like, ‘Oh my God—she’s here! This is meant to be! I’ve got to go get her!’” she says. “I hadn’t intended to start that quickly, but there she was.”

Harrington later received support from the Washington’s Artist Trust and ITVS (which also funded The Blinking Madonna). “It’s really hard to get big sums of money cold, with just a piece of paper,” she says. “No matter how well your proposal is written, it’s so much nicer to have material that says, ‘Oh, look, I shot this interview with Wanda Jackson! I went to this concert in Las Vegas! I have this archival footage!’”

Though Harrington says that the production was ultimately a pretty “even-keeled experience,” she did encounter her share of obstacles. Concurrent to Welcome to the Club, she was also producing and writing Aleutians: Cradle of the Storms, a two-hour documentary for Oregon public television. For a while she was literally split between the two projects, often spending one half of the week in the Arctic circle and the other half in Memphis, Tennessee.

“Here’s a classic freelancer problem,” she says. “You don’t have any work for a while, and then all of a sudden you have not one but two projects. And they’re both really high profile, and one you really should do because it’s good for business, and the other one you should do because it’s your baby,” she says. “It’s a ridiculously good problem to have for a change, as a filmmaker,” she confesses, though at the same time she admits she “didn’t do anything last year.”

Harrington is happy to say she’s started her next film. At the urging of Roseanne Cash (who narrates Welcome to the Club), she’s planning a documentary on the Carter Family, and will interview June Carter soon.

And despite any difficulties, Harrington is more than pleased with how Welcome to the Club turned out. “The big achievement to me is the women who were in it really liked it a lot,” she says. “It’s not necessarily something every filmmaker has to strive for, depending on what kind of film you’re making. But for this, it was so personal to them, and it was so important to do them justice, because their story hadn’t been told much.

“Several of them called me and said, ‘People are really seeing this, people are really understanding what happened to me.’ A lot of these women have very quiet lives now. They perform, but the people they know in their daily life don’t really know that much about what their experience was. So that’s kind of cool.”

Since its premiere on PBS in March 2002, Welcome to the Club has garnered increasingly high-profile encomium, most notably a Grammy nomination for Long Form Music Video. “There are 104 categories,” she says, “and this is the 104th category.” Her film competed against four other (in the words of the Grammy ballot) “video album packages consisting of more than one song or track.” These range from a Robbie Williams concert video produced by Capitol Records to Palm Pictures’ 1 Giant Leap, a three-years-in-the-making world music documentary.

“I know everyone says the corny ‘it’s an honor to be nominated’ line, but in this case, it’s all gravy. I never expected to be nominated for a Grammy award under any circumstances, and here I am, what a joke,” says the former rocker. “At this point in my life, I haven’t performed in years! I’m delighted.”

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Charlie Sweitzer is a New York-based writer.