All Over Me

Sharps & Flats is a daily music review in Salon Magazine

Topics: Patti Smith, Music,

I was crying when I left the theater after seeing “All Over Me,” the Sichel Sisters film about 15-year-old best friends Claude and Ellen who grow up and apart in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen. When I woke up the next morning, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I was desperate to own the soundtrack, but I didn’t have any money — I had to borrow money from my boyfriend just to buy my morning coffee. But I had to have it, so I raided my closet, stuffed a bag full of clothes, sold them to a second-hand store and bought it. Now I’m listening to it and crying again.

No other collection of songs has ever expressed the poignant agonies and sheer rage of girlhood like this. In these songs is the sharp, self-pitying nihilism of girls sitting in their bedrooms and slitting their wrists, the dull ache of having sex with someone who couldn’t care less about you, and then the joy — the liberating, screaming joy — of an experience like walking into a punk club for the first time and finding it full of girls exactly like you. Both the film and the music perfectly capture the highly pitched passion and symbiotic bonds between teenage best friends and the searing pain that comes from their dissolution.

Leisha Hailey, one half of the rainbow-haired duo the Murmurs, plays Lucy, Claude’s love interest, and the song the Murmurs contribute to the soundtrack is its most devastating. Anyone who remembers the Murmurs from their catchy but slight 1995 mini-hit “You Suck” will be surprised by the soulfulness and ragged sadness on “Squeezebox Days.” Heather Grody sings in a high, raw voice over a brooding, melodic guitar, “I don’t care if you don’t know me/And I don’t even care if you don’t like me/Can’t we just spend the night together/So I’ll have something to think about tomorrow.”

Contrasting the Murmurs’ lovely fatalism is Sleater-Kinney’s driving, harmonic punk. “I Want to Be Your Joey Ramone,” with its half-ironic refrain, “I’m the queen of rock ‘n’ roll,” bursts with so much desire and ambition it could propel a girl right through her miserable adolescence. In the juxtaposition of these two songs is the possibility of redemption — a banal idea, maybe, but thank God these bands take it seriously, because it’s also a life-changing one.

There are a few male-fronted bands among the album’s 20 tracks, and even a ’70s disco song by Bee-Gees rip-off artists the Ozark Mountain Daredevils. But it’s the women, from Patti Smith to Ani DiFranco, who make the album so brilliant. “Claude has done her homework,” said director Alex Sichel, “she’s researched the girl rocker thing. In a way, the soundtrack tells the history of righteous girl music, which is Claude’s music.”

Because music is so integral to Claude and Ellen’s life, music supervisor Bill Coleman had a chance to assemble brilliant female musicians without having to force them under any particular genre umbrella. Too often, “women in rock” compilations stereotype women singers as folky earth-mothers or tattooed wild women. But this album doesn’t need a thesis — it’s just girls and their guitars.

Almost every song on this album owes its existence to Patti Smith, whose poster hangs over Claude’s bed. On “Pissing in a River,” her voice is so huge and deep that she encompasses and embodies two generations of female longing.

Originally, Alex Sichel had planned the film as a documentary about the riot grrl movement, and the scene pervades the soundtrack. Babes In Toyland open the album with the haunting “Hello,” full of guitar wails and girlish whispers that turn into growls. Helium’s “Hole in the Ground” is in the same vein: thick, feedback-laden and simmering. Ultimately, though, the musical world that serves as the milieu of “All Over Me” is unified less by style than by its smoldering emotional intensity. DiFranco is frequently labeled a folk singer, and her music is sharp and clear instead of fuzzy and distorted, but her bittersweet “Shy” fits easily into the scene that the soundtrack evokes. So does the slow, twangy lament “Superglider,” by Drugstore, a band that sounds a lot like Mazzy Star.

If you leave the CD playing for a few minutes after the last song,
a bonus track comes on, a heartbreaking little ballad that sums up
the entire album with the refrain, “you make me feel so fucking
real.” A trite sentiment, to be sure, but it’s one that cracks with
emotion. If only I’d had this CD when I was 15.

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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