It might be hard to imagine a musician or band documentary that avoids the standard “rise and fall” narrative. “Strictly Sacred,” a film about Tacoma band Girl Trouble, chronicles how the band has been “Eluding Fame Since 1984,” as one promotional poster states.
Any tipping point Girl Trouble encountered in their 30-year history (all original members still play together) that foreshadowed success was met with band skepticism. A European tour? Signing with Sub Pop on the cusp of its historical rise as an independent record label? Even albums revered by fans are dismissed on screen by band members who justify their criticism.
Yet this is no band of curmudgeons. In the intense, trendsetting music scene of the late 1980s Pacific Northwest, Girl Trouble was the zany, oblivious contrast and the film has an extensive archive of VHS footage to prove it. Lead singer Kurt Kendall's infectious energy is complimented with go-go dancers, party favors for the crowd and even a zine to take home.
Girl Trouble worked hard to have this much fun, and “Strictly Sacred” distinguishes itself from countless music documentaries by exploring that concept. Other bands might include a geriatric go-go dancer on stage as some ironic stab at commercialism. Girl Trouble brought Granny Go Go on stage as a token of endearment. Kendall ends up befriending her to the level of becoming a surrogate son.
The Tacoma band's tight-knit insularity baffled those who were associated with the group in Olympia and Seattle. Is the band a “family” or a “gang?” Did they insist on “complete creative control” or did they “care too much?” Each band member's honest introspection and the bewildered respect of interviewees like Calvin Johnson of Olympia’s K Records (one of Girl Trouble's former labels) keep the film intriguing.
Local director Isaac Olsen did a clever job with editing a presumably massive trove of archival footage. A few stories skimp on details and assume audience familiarity (such as with drummer Bon von Wheelie's legal battle with a dubious event promoter) presumably to avoid taxing the audience’s attention span.
Another star of the film is Tacoma itself, and some transitional sequences by Olsen capture its unique rough spots. Explained by the group's admirers, Tacoma allowed Girl Trouble to “bunker down” and not let “their ambitions exceed the the confines of their life.” A useful lesson for artists here.