Le Tigre is the kind of band where if you’re in for an inch, you’re in for a mile.
Like many mediocre tour documentaries, Who Took The Bomp? Le Tigre On Tour falls into the mistake of serving up good concert footage without much else to support it. The tour documentary is a tricky medium, because it needs to function both as a record of a cultural moment as well as a companion piece to the music itself. The film’s concert footage shows Le Tigre for what it is, a very good band. But it's questionable whether the non-concert footage really brings insight into the lives of the members, or if anything is really added to the band’s existing body of work.
Le Tigre is made up of Kathleen Hanna, the former lead singer of the seminal riot grrl punk band, Bikini Kill, Johanna Fateman, a zine-writer pulled into Hanna’s influence, and J.D. Samson, a DJ made a full member after the band's first album. Le Tigre rose to semi-prominence in the first decade of the 21st century due to their energetic, political music and stylized stage productions. Their music features mostly talk-sung vocals over samples and drum machine beats, with the occasional distorted guitar. The lyrics are always politically charged, though also gut-hitting and memorable. And while the band’s feminist message is serious as a heart-attack, the stage production goes to great pains to make that message fun and accessible.
Kathleen Hanna and Johanna Fateman typically wear costumes on-stage that straddle the line between homemade housedresses, prom gowns, and aerobics clothes, made from fluorescent spandex and razzle-dazzle prints. J.D. Samson, on the other hand, wears costumes of the same cloth cut in pointedly more masculine styles. If J.D. Samson doesn't come off as particularly interested in labels of sexual orientation, but she wears short-cropped hair, masculine clothes, nerd glasses, and a mustache; her part in Le Tigre elevates a personal fashion aesthetic to political performance art. The gender-designations of the band’s costumes, their conflation of '50s housewife style and '70s jazzercise-wear, are deeply ironic. Add some silly jazzercize dance routines to the mix, and you’ve got yourself a super-cool dance party, both fun and meaningful.
The first half of the film shows Le Tigre acting bratty, having a good time in front of the camera. Samson seems to be perpetually stoned, talking in a slurred voice for most of the film. Fateman has a quieter, almost protective presence, especially in relation to Samson. Hanna is wild-eyed and sharp-tongued, showing the wit that surfaces so readily in Le Tigre lyrics. There's a sequence when the band works out with gym equipment, as if making a home fitness video, clearly drunk. This is all as much fun for the viewer as it clearly was for them, the kind of behavior one imagines being the main benefit of touring with a band. We are along for the ride as the girls enjoy simple pleasures like getting stoned and shooting off hobby store rocket kits.
There's another moment where brattiness crosses over to plain meanness. At a rock festival, where Le Tigre is the only female band on the ticket, the band members pretend to be fans of the horror-core heavy metal band Slipknot, chatting them up and posing for pictures. Of course, it’s all a goof, and they’re just ironically reveling in the lameness of Slipknot’s leather masks and horror make-up. And of course, they’re right on both counts, but stating as much comes off as petty rather than funny. Kathleen Hanna is on the right track when she tells the camera that she feels like a teen-movie jock who pretends to like the ugly nerd-girl and then breaks her heart at the prom. The moment manages to make the viewer feel sorry for a beefy guy wearing vampire make-up.
The second half of the film showcases the band’s close relationship to their fans, the earnestness of their feminist ideology. There are many sequences with them mingling backstage with young girls for whom Le Tigre seems to be not just a good band but a validation of their whole lifestyle. Other moments highlight the need for such validation. One of these parts has J.D. Samson telling a story about her interactions with a particular fan who thinks Samson is a gay man. The fan tries to ingratiate herself to Samson by slagging off “lesbians who dress like boys”, which obviously doesn’t go over well. It’s telling that this moment, being one of the best of the whole film, is told to the camera rather than captured in frame.
The members of Le Tigre are shown reacting in some very human ways to the oppression their music so powerfully speaks about. In one scene, Hanna expresses fear about the forward motion of the feminist movement, saying that “each generation has to remake the wheel” of the feminist cause. In another, Samson reacts with very justified feelings of hurt and frustration, when Jane magazine refuses to include the word, “lesbian” in an ad campaign for their album. “I feel so dirty right now,” Samson says, after she and Johanna Fateman debate the pros and cons of pulling the ad campaign. (They end up pulling the ads.)
For young fans who have experienced similar oppression, such moments will ring true. But they don’t exactly jive with the aesthetic of the band. Where the punk rock aesthetic of Le Tigre would seem to react with either anger or gleefully nihilistic silliness, the individual members, understandably, come off a bit softer than their music would suggest. The activism of the band is given a human quality, one showing equal interest in existing in the world as in setting it on fire with social change. One wishes that the film showed some kind of middle-ground in the creative process between these human responses and the activism of the band’s music.
One such moment in the film that should have been expanded upon is a short segment touching on how Le Tigre was formed. There are some vague statements about a backlash against Hanna’s previous band, Bikini Kill, where Hanna describes “horizontal oppression” occurring within the ranks of feminist punk subculture. Says Hanna, “I was being told by the mainstream media that I was a fat, retarded slut who didn’t know what I was doing, and then on the other hand from people who I thought were my scene, I felt really rejected because a lot of the time when we got media attention, it was because we were sell-outs.” Elaborating on Hanna’s journey from the confrontational punk rock of Bikini Kill to the ironic faux-dance music of Le Tigre would have filled in a lot of underlying narrative.
Basically, the biggest problem with the movie is that the aesthetic of Le Tigre is so politically and aesthetically evocative, the minutiae of the band member’s lives, viewed as a backdrop to the music, tends to distract rather than illuminate. In one scene Kathleen Hanna talks at an after-party to a member of the metal band Hatebreed, who says, “We rage harder in one minute than a lot of people do in their whole pathetic lives!” Hanna replies, saying, “I like to sit in bed and read magazines. I, like, rage with my home décor magazines!” While funny, the moment highlights the disappointingly prosaic quality of the band’s tour existence.
The Le Tigre that appears in Who Took the Bomp? is a bit like a series of DVD special features to the band, rather than a self-standing story. Given the show-y quality of Le Tigre’s “West Side Story meets jazzercise meets harlequin” stage production, as well as the energy of their music, getting to see this side of them is a bit anti-climactic. Their music speaks so well for itself, seeing the faces behind it could let down non-hardcore fans.
Then again, one could rightly ask whether there is such a thing as a non-hardcore fan of Le Tigre. This is the kind of band where if you’re in for an inch, you’re in for a mile. One has to conclude that judging a film in terms one’s initial involvement with the subject matter is a not very reliable rubric; a documentary should make sense to the intelligent generalist as well as to the fan.