Fans of British punk-reggae mavericks the Slits, rejoice! A long-overdue documentary about the women-dominated group that created one of the greatest albums ever—1979's Cut—is the respectful historical treatment these riot-grrrl precursors deserve.
Made on a tiny budget, Here to Be Heard: The Story of the Slits by Bellingham director William E. Badgley uses the scrapbook kept by bassist Tessa Pollitt as its organizing device. The filmmaker shoots the musician, now in her late 50s, leafing through the yellowed clippings from UK music mags to trigger her memories about the Slits' tribulations and triumphs, and as a prompt for archival footage from England's febrile 1970s punk scene, out of which the Slits sprouted like weird flowers that refused to blossom in their prescribed plot of land.
It won't surprise most viewers to learn that the Slits faced rampant sexism and caused widespread confusion as they came up in the male-dominated music business. When the band went on the White Riot tour with the Clash in 1977, the bus driver had to be bribed to let them into the vehicle. During the Slits' early days, a man stabbed charismatic vocalist Ari Up and said, "Here's a slit."
"We had to break down all these barriers in the society we were living in," Pollitt says.
Despite these obstacles and frequent personnel changes, the Slits ascended quickly; their first gig was opening for the Clash and the Buzzcocks—heady company for a fledgling unit. Here to Be Heard offers a trove of live footage from the Slits' peak years, capturing how their ramshackle energy was channeled into songs that made up in odd catchiness and skewed rhythmic buoyancy what they lacked in technical proficiency.
Critic Vivien Goldman summarized the Slits' galvanizing effect on crowds and music journalists: "They looked as topsy-turvy as the music sounded. It was a new paradigm for females. They were provocative and outrageous and were having fun. They weren't manufactured. They didn't give a fuck."
Although the Slits proved to be a liberating force for everyone from Madonna to the riot grrrls to the burgeoning wave of 2010s post-punk artists, they did have some men helping them in the wings, including drummers Budgie and Bruce Smith and producer Dennis Bovell. It was the latter who boosted the Slits' quirky rhythmic sensibilities into a stunning hybrid of punk and reggae on the classic Cut LP.
Nevertheless, Badgley rightly keeps the focus on the women—Pollitt, Palmolive, Viv Albertine, and the late Ari Up, to whom the film is dedicated—who fostered a radical approach to songwriting that hasn't lost any of its piquancy over the last four decades. Compare the Slits' version of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" to other artists who have covered the Motown standard and you will understand how endearingly idiosyncratic these ladies were.
Badgley's scrappy, heartfelt portrait mirrors his subject's DIY aesthetic with a true fanatic's intensity. It may lack polish, but its zeal in telling an important and under-acknowledged story more than compensates for its limitations.