When director William Badgley’s friend Jennifer Shagawat (Shellshagg), who served as the tour manager for the Slits when the British punk band reformed in the late 2000s, asked him to create a documentary about the group using archival footage she had shot on the reunion tour, Badgley originally declined.
He turned the film down initially because he was afraid of having to come up with the money to license footage and music from a major label (he had only worked with indie rock bands before) not because he didn't think the band's story wouldn't make a great film.
“In 2010, Slits singer Ari Up passes away, and Jennifer is in this situation where she was mourning the death of a friend and an idol and someone she looked up to,” Badgley recalls via phone as he was waiting on a train to take him from Baltimore to Washington D.C. for a screening of his film Here to Be Heard: The Story of the Slits
. He appears at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday at the Capitol Theatre
to introduce the movie and lead a Q&A after it screens. “She was sitting on this mountain of work, but she’s a musician and not a filmmaker. She shot a bunch of footage without proper mics or anything. They originally wanted the whole film to be out of that footage, but that wasn’t possible. I wanted to start shooting from scratch.”
Badgley, who had played in a band and made the music-related documentary Kill All Rednecks
, says he didn’t want to work with a group that had been on a major label (the Slits were signed to Island Records).
“You can spend a year or two of your life working on a film, and if you hit a financial or legal roadblock, no amount of DIY work ethic is going to get you over it,” says Badgley. “Three weeks later, I woke up one day and realized I just needed to go for it because it’s too important of a story.”
Badgley’s fears were ultimately realized, and due to problems obtaining rights to the music, he stopped filming for 18 months.
He’d eventually get back on track and secure interviews with former Slits manager and punk documentarian Don Letts, Slits guitarist Viv Albertine, Slits singer Ari Up, Slits drummer Palmolive, Slits bassist Tessa Pollitt, Slits drummer Bruce Smith, Slits singer-keyboardist-percussionist Hollie Cook, NYU professor Vivien Goldman, producer Dennis Bovell and Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook to create a compelling narrative about a boundary-breaking band.
The movie also features previously unseen footage and recordings by the group.
The film commences with scenes from late '70s Britain, where the group formed. It documents how the band began to broaden its musical horizons (the music holds up quite well, actually) before disbanding and then reforming.
The film concludes with Up’s death.
“With art movements like punk, music is not the important part of it,” says Badgley. “In my opinion, in the long run, the important part of it is that it opens up a new channel for people to be who they are, and that’s invaluable. The Slits just do that in so many ways. To speak about it as a gender issue doesn’t do them the service they deserve. It’s a gender thing but also a genre thing. They don’t stay a punk band. They start fusing reggae, and they don’t stay there. They do world music and improvisational jazz, and they keep going. They cross races lines and do all sorts of interesting things.”