"Songbirds" New Tune

Dennis Harvey June 1, 2006

Even a little originality is hard enough — inventing a whole new genre goes way beyond the call of artistic duty. But that’s what director Brian Hill, lyricist Simon Armitage, and composer Simon Boswell have achieved over the last few years in a series of films made for British television. Apotheosis to date of a collaboration that (between Hill and Armitage, at least) stretches back 12 years, “Songbirds” is a “documentary musical” — something that, admittedly, sounds like a pure contradiction-in-terms until you actually see it.

What Hill and his team did was go to Surrey, England’s Downview Prison, a high-security yet rather progressive facility for female convicts. There, they interviewed various residents at length, workshopping with a committed few to create original songs that uniquely encapsulate each inmate’s viewpoint and backstory.

This might sound like a horribly contrived form of arty cabaret with social-advocacy pretensions. But in execution “Songbirds” is tough-mindedly striking on several levels. Its protagonists seem not exploited or manipulated, but fully engaged by their curious autobiographical mini-musical opportunity. One senses a liberation at having a legitimized, creative way to express themselves — and these are largely women who’ve been abused and belittled their whole lives.

Those lives — that is, the ones lived before or between prison stints — share numerous overlaps that won’t surprise anyone familiar with female incarceration realities in the U.S. or elsewhere. Again and again, we hear details of childhood sexual abuse, spousal domestic violence, and drug addiction. Their crimes (often robbery) are almost an incidental byproduct of impossible circumstances, which is not to say the women abdicate responsibility.

Spike-haired “Scary Mary” swaggers through a rap song suggesting she’s the proudest butch in stir. But its chorus is “I’m oh so sorry,” and having spent over half her 35 years incarcerated, she admits committing the most recent burglaries simply to get back in. Prison was better than relapsing into crack addiction, or being raped yet again as a hapless distaff crackhead amongst male ones.

Convicted for “arson with intent,” “Sam” enumerates — verbally and via soft-rock ballad — a lifetime reeling from one violent relationship (starting with dad) to another. “Maggie,” serving six years for burglary, says she grew up believing a husband’s beatings were “just marriage, the way it is.” Raising four children by age 22, she was repeatedly hospitalized by a “travellin’ man” spouse who seldom refrained from beating her while pregnant.

When he turned to crack, she followed, figuring they’d then at least “be on the same page.” Maggie’s Irish-colleen voice (the film’s “songbirds” had benefit of a vocal coach) is showcased on two songs, one a country-style lament, the other a lullaby sent out to the offspring long since been adopted by other families. Indeed, the agony of maternal abandonment is a major thread for several women here, at its worst a spur for self-mutilation.

Mostly childless, however, are the participants in “Songbirds’” sole multi-voice, multi-story “production number”: In which foreign-national women from France, Jamaica, Belgium, and elsewhere sing a jauntily ironic, reggae-tinged ditty about how they were suckered into being international drug “mules.” Two Gallic lasses claim they didn’t even know they were carrying Ecstasy tabs (they thought they were smuggling jewels). That didn’t prevent the English judge from giving them “only” 18 years apiece. In England, as in the States, it seems, drug-related sentences are outrageously heavy-handed in comparison to those accorded violent and miscellaneous crime.

Narrating their stories both in classic talking-head and diversely musicalized form, the “songbirds” are overwhelmingly aware of what got them here, and adamant about never repeating those mistakes again. The largely positive take on prison experience — many women credit it for turning their lives around — might surprise U.S. viewers. But then Downview appears a very modern and rehabilitation-oriented facility, with its private single-occupant rooms, vocational training, and degree-earning programs.

Interestingly, the one woman here who seems incapable of admitting full guilt is also the only subject from an upper-class background. Her story teased throughout the feature, “Theresa” still expresses bewilderment that a testy relationship with loud neighbors led where it did — to a crime far worse than anything the otherwise “rough” working-class types we meet at Downview committed. Her why-me, sob-sister denial represents the only case in which a participant’s honesty seems suspect. I’m just glad I never lived next door to her.

Director Hill first asked poet Armitage to provide verse narration for “Saturdayt Night,” [sic] a ’96 documentary about weekend revelries in industrial English city Leeds. “Drinking for England” and “Feltham Sings” (shot at Western Europe’s largest juvenile lockup) refined their ideas. As did 2003’s prudishly slammed “Pornography: The Musical,” which gave tuneful voice to workers in the Brit “smut” trade. “Songbirds,” by contrast, scored the Golden Fleece for European TV documentaries by landing a Sundance Festival spot, then several subsequent international festival gigs.

Its Roxie run, however, is likely to be one of precious few theatrical exposures it’ll have, in or outside the U.S. It’s showing in conjunction down the street on Valencia is New College of California’s photography exhibit “Interrupted Life: Incarcerated Mothers in the United States.