Tribeca 2024 Review: 1-800-ON-HER-OWN Gives an Unusual Look at Ani DiFranco Behind the Scenes

Dana Flor’s documentary raises more questions than it answers.

Contributing Writer
Tribeca 2024 Review: 1-800-ON-HER-OWN Gives an Unusual Look at Ani DiFranco Behind the Scenes

The documentary 1-800-ON-HER-OWN takes its title from the actual toll-free number for Ani DiFranco's own Righteous Babe record label, which has been operational since the early '90s, when it flashed on the screen during an MTV News report that first brought mainstream attention to the career independent artist. While the doc, directed by Dana Flor and receiving its world premiere at the Tribeca Festival, does trace that far back, it mostly consists of footage, acquired during the Covid-19 pandemic, of her home life and the recording of 2021 album, Revolutionary Love.

That record represented a sonic shift for the artist, but you wouldn't know it from the documentary. The film does illustrate the unusual -- for DiFranco at least -- start of the project.

The folk singer had been writing alone for three decades and was very eager to collaborate. Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, who had contributed to her prior album, 2017's Binary, invited her (the film doesn't specify when) as the guest of honor to his artists' retreat in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, US. We see the session where title track Revolutionary Love took shape, with Vernon, producer Brad Cook and singers-songwriters Elsa Jenson and Pieta Brown.

Euphoric from the workshop, DiFranco asked Cook to serve as a producer on her upcoming album, despite being admittedly unfamiliar with his work. They were clearly in the middle of the pandemic by then, communicating via webcams. At Cook's suggestion, DiFranco broke from shelter-in-place and traveled to Durham, North Carolina, US, to streamline the production process, and indeed they were able to retrack the record in just two days. While DiFranco was happy about the project's direction, Cook apparently felt differently.

That main narrative is peppered with archival interviews and concert footage. But those who want a comprehensive overview of DiFranco's career are best advised to seek out her 2019 autobiography, No Walls and the Recurring Dream: A Memoir. To that end, 1-800-ON-HER-OWN merely offers a CliffsNotes version that pales in comparison even with her Wikipedia page.

The interviews spliced in, with DiFranco alleging rape, abuse and abortions, tease at something far more explosive. But the film never follows up on those incendiary public comments. Same goes with her "toxic" romantic and professional relationships with former manager and Righteous Babe president Scot Fisher.

What the film does is to unwittingly surface glaring inconsistencies between the artist's public persona and reality. Then it proceeds to gloss over those as if viewers won't notice.

Though DiFranco was initially touted as a teenage record-label founder, Fisher was clearly the one running everything behind the scenes. Though in public she disparaged exploitation by major labels, privately she seemingly fell prey to Fisher's manipulations. Though she came out as bisexual, her romantic relationships have only been with men. If none of these selling points is entirely true, should we have paid any attention?

The film points out the economic shift in the music industry since the proliferation of digital formats, yet DiFranco still insists it's gender inequality that necessitates her touring nonstop to pay the bills. Just how much is she leaning on identity politics as a marketing ploy?

Flor seems to have an aversion to asking uncomfortable questions, preferring to let DiFranco draw her own boundaries. It's not even an issue of respecting privacy. With her autobiography out, certain difficult topics should be fair game.

At least, her unpretentiousness doesn't seem to be a put-on, such as shown in the documentary P!nk: All I Know So Far and others. Or does it? Flor inexplicably passes on the low-hanging fruit and doesn't even think to prompt former Righteous Babe employees to candidly discuss what went on between DiFranco and Fisher. The film misses the chance to provide a sobering look at the mythmaking behind a prodigy.

While the slew of music documentaries flooding the streaming platforms has mostly been puff pieces, 1-800-ON-HER-OWN at least doesn't try to sugarcoat what it does observe. DiFranco at different points admits difficulties in her marriage with Mike Napolitano. Here again, Flor doesn't press for details.

The film doesn't even line up the usual chorus of critics, historians and peers to sing DiFranco's praises. So what's left is yet another mostly uncritical and naval-gazing celebrity documentary. Fans won't gain better insight into where she comes from or what makes her tick. All we have is a snapshot of the artist on the eve of her menopause, when she vows to be an old lady not giving a fuck.

The film enjoys its world premiere at the 2024 Tribeca Festival.

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Ani DiFrancoDana FlorTribeca 2024Tribeca Festival

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