Published Sep 01, 2001For three years running, 1997 till 1999, the Lilith Fair traveled with its all-female lineup, spreading its message of good cheer and vocal harmonies across North America. Lynne Stopkewich ("Kissed") and crew joined the festival during its last year to document the happening and its enormous appeal. (It was the highest grossing multi-artist festival in 1998.) "Lilith on Top," the resulting film, never lets you forget the wonderful things that happened on the road or how much the crowd appreciated the festival. Musicians, stage crew and audience caught up in a wave of love and respect. This film does the near impossible, conveying the energy of the festival onto film, but it fails for the same reason that the festival did. By claiming to be all things for all women, it is sadly lacking in the personal and the viewer is denied a well-rounded examination of the event.
Rock concerts are notoriously difficult to film. It's hard to capture the energy of the event. It works when we're in the room experiencing it but film provides an added layer of distance. Something is always missing when you're not in the crowd. To compensate for this, "Lilith On Top" cuts from band on stage shots, to back stage hijinx, to audience interviews. We don't stop for long on a single image and the mood is kept lively. Stopkewich has a storyteller's ability to move through topics. A natural flow is evident and it never feels like she jumped from one to the other for the sake of convenience. The film progressed from one image or thought to the next the climax being the final show. And since I'm not a fan of the music (exception being the Pretenders), and despite the fact that I still sing along with the Indigo Girls' "Closer To Fine," I was pleased that the music clips were short. (Although I was intrigued to learn that the Dixie Chicks have a song called "Sin Wagon.") Anyone who is a fan will likely be pleased that they get a little taste of everything.
This is still very much Sarah McLachlan's show. She is at the core of the Fair, sings back up for many of the acts she's the sprite backstage pulling pranks and keeping spirits high. We can see that deep down she's still an East Coast party girl. The cowboy hat and occasional Southern drawl is a bit confusing but she carries it well.
A montage of press conferences blended together with Sarah repeating the same lines over and over sentences seamlessly edited together from one place to the next is one of the few times that we see how much of a job this is for her. We can understand why despite all the fun, frivolity and bonding she decided not to continue. Stopkewich's use of editing captures the repetition of shows and tours but there's little mention (other than occasional Sarah comment and diary entry) that it is at all difficult. Her husband and drummer comes closer by saying that he'll be happy when the tour is over because he'll get his wife back and she'll get her husband back. The strain on a personal relationship is evident in his face. Throughout the film we see the enormity of the event but what we miss is the personal. There are the pensive shots of Sarah before hitting the stage at the last Lilith Fair concert light falling behind the wings, illuminating the singer as she stares at her hands, chipping nail polish off, preparing herself for the final bow but they are cinematic rather than empathetic. People mention how wonderful someone is or what a treat it is to work with Sarah but we don't see the wear and tear on the person. The crew's response is interesting because they seem to be the most affected by the end of it even Sarah's chef breaks down and cries at the thought of it all being over. They could probably have used a documentary all their own. Forget Sheryl Crow, the real story is the people who work to put everything together.
The Lilith Fair was organized to provide a platform for female artists and cultivate a community atmosphere. How well did it succeed in its mandate? The fair has been criticized for only shining the light of media on one variety of female music mainly white, mainly mainstream - perhaps the problem is that this one fair has to carry the weight of too many people at once. It can't be everything to everyone and it shouldn't have to be. It should be one of many and it shouldn't be an oddity. Unfortunately, though, it is. On the last night of the tour, the Indigo Girls point out that the big rock media "Rolling Stone" and "Spin" aren't there to cover the finale. Amy says, "We should have the cover" of these mainstream magazines but they don't. Despite the celebration and group hugs and despite the fact that it was a successful tour financially; they didn't rate more than a sidebar at the end. The Lilith Fair made people look, but how well did they listen?