I’ve heard from every corner lately, and from quite diverse career environments, that women have to work harder than anyone else, harder than anyone ever imagines is possible, in order to get anywhere in their chosen metier. Once again, and in dramatic fashion, that sentiment has been brought home in director Amy Goldstein’s documentary, Kate Nash: Underestimate the Girl. That’s it, isn’t it? It seems that every business environment assumes women, regardless of how hard they work, are just not enough to get where they want to go. They are not enough, unless they follow every rule that those in charge (mostly men) lay out for them.
Goldstein makes a strong case that it is possible, as a female artist, to be enough, all through the alternately inspiring and dispiriting story of Kate Nash. Through the trajectory of the director/actress/activist’s career, her choices, her challenges, and her insights about it all, viewers of Underestimate the Girl see just how difficult the music industry is for women. It gives the film industry a run for its money, and that’s really saying something. Much like young women working in front of the camera in Hollywood, the music world thrives on chewing young talent up and spitting them out, after they’ve made them a predetermined amount of cash, and before they get wise to just how badly they are being used.
Kate Nash broke into the Brit music scene in 2007 with her debut album Made of Bricks. She reached number 1 on the mercurial UK pop music charts, and won Best Female Artist at the 2008 Brit Awards. She became a huge star, but wanted to create more feminist, less pop-based music, so she subsequently made punk-inspired, very in-your-face songs. Those songs got her unceremoniously dropped from the record label for which she had made a mint of money. Going out on her own with an all-girl band, she released music independently.
Mistakes, betrayals, and bucking the system that only celebrates female creators they can control, meant years of grueling hard work, lots of disappointments, and a fear that she’d never succeed again. Goldstein’s film captures much of this, showing first Nash’s crash from the top, then documenting the determination and resiliency she musters to get herself back up again. On her own terms, she finds her way to being successful as not only a musician, but as an actress starring in the hit series Glow. Through it all, it’s clear Nash is driven by a desire to change things not only for her own future, but for the girls that come after her. She may be rough around the edges, but her drive and artistry are never in question.
As I started Underestimate the Girl, I had no idea who Kate Nash was. Then I realized I had actually seen the musician during her punk phase, live at a local Washington DC venue. I remember being impressed with her stage presence, and thinking I should buy her music. She and her band were fierce. She not only owned the stage, she seemed angry, hungry, and out to change some minds. As the film continued, I kept thinking I recognized her from somewhere. Then it dawned on me she played Britannica on one of my favorite shows, Glow. What was it that made me forget about her not once, but twice?
I had the opportunity to ask director Goldstein why she felt driven to tell Nash’s story. “I was researching making a film about women filmmakers fighting for a chance to make films in Hollywood, and how not only the narrative, but reality could be changed. I was part of the EEOC investigation into the studios systematic discrimination of women filmmakers. But as I began to talk to other filmmakers it felt too close to home, too personal. I was introduced to Kate Nash by our mutual hairdresser Julie Rea. She was making Kate’s hair a luminescent pink to match the vaginas Kate had built for Coachella, as her independent career was taking off.” She continues to say, “It struck me that many tragic films about women artists in music dying were being released at that time (Amy, Janis: Little Girl Blue, What Happened. Miss Simone?) sending the message that in order to affect the world, you must self-destruct; I suspected that we could shift the narrative, and make a film about a woman in music living and thriving, so we set out to do it.”
In Goldstein’s film, I found something about why both women and men underestimate, forget, or put aside women creating independently, in both the film and music space. We expect women to scream, artistically or sometimes even literally, in order to be noticed. We expect them to be lauded by the powers that be. Or we expect them to self-destruct. Goldstein’s film offers another narrative. It is one that follows a performer and creator who finds a way to speak her truth, loudly and creatively, as a woman, and on her own terms. Is that path often nearly catastrophic? Yes. Does that path almost certainly mean working harder than it seems is even humanly possible? Yes. That’s often what it means to be a woman, in any industry, and even more so as a female artist.
Kate Nash is not a genius. She’s not the best musician you’ll ever hear nor the best actress you’ll ever see. She’s just a creative, impassioned female artist who wants to make her mark and find her joy, doing what she believes in, not what others tell her to do. Underestimate the Girl is a testament to all the girls out there who want to do the same.
4 out of 5 stars.