Indigo Girls 40-year career captured in film, showing at Atlanta Film Fest

Amy Ray (left) and Emily Saliers, of the Indigo Girls, are the subject of an in-depth documentary on their career, "It's Only Life After All," which is one of the marquee films at this year's Atlanta Film Festival Photo: Jeremy Cowart

Credit: Jeremy Cowart

Credit: Jeremy Cowart

Amy Ray (left) and Emily Saliers, of the Indigo Girls, are the subject of an in-depth documentary on their career, "It's Only Life After All," which is one of the marquee films at this year's Atlanta Film Festival Photo: Jeremy Cowart

Amy Ray and Emily Saliers first met at Laurel Ridge Elementary School. If you want to see future rock ‘n’ roll stars when they were skinny DeKalb County grade-schoolers, you’ll find them in “It’s Only Life After All.”

You can also watch proto-Indigo appearances at school functions, listen to early-days cassettes and see snapshots from fans, family members and the Indigo Girls themselves.

The spread sheets listing sources, from Handycam home movies to television news shows, extend to 500 pages, according to director Alexandria Bombach. “There are fans that would send Amy VHS tape recordings of their shows from all over the map. It’s endless, I felt like I was drowning in honey.”

Those tapes added to Ray’s own “massive archive” of video. Early in the documentary she leads the camera-person into her basement, revealing stacks of mini-discs and cassettes, and we see her, camera in hand, documenting one event after another.

Eventually Bombach had 1,000 hours of footage to edit, including the contemporary material that she began shooting in 2020, before being interrupted by the pandemic.

The story captures not just the creation of this quintessential folk-rock duo, but the flowering of the music and LGBTQ scene in Atlanta in the 1980s and ‘90s.

The Indigo Girls performed during the Pride concert in the park in 2004.

Credit: T. Levette Bagwell / AJC

icon to expand image

Credit: T. Levette Bagwell / AJC

It was a time when Georgia seemed to catch the national ear, and when acoustic instruments, heartfelt lyrics and simple two-voice harmony found a place on the radio.

“It’s Only Life After All,” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival; its Atlanta debut, part of the Atlanta Film Festival, will take place at 1 p.m., Sunday, April 23, at the Carter Presidential Center. The screening will include an appearance by Ray, Saliers and Bombach.

Ray and Saliers told the AJC last year that they were convinced to let Bombach create the film after seeing her award-winning documentary “On Her Shoulders,” about a Yazidi woman who survives ISIS atrocities.

Atlantans will be charmed by the local history captured in the new documentary and scenes from the Little Five Points Pub and other local hangouts.

In the course of making the film Saliers and Ray relive some highs and lows from their career, including a re-read of their first review in the New York Times. Written by Jon Pareles and published on August 7, 1989, it opens, “Earnest pretentiousness has new standard bearers,” and comments that Ray “sings every line with exaggerated ardency.”

Ray’s response: “What a (expletive.)” But, she adds, “He’s not wrong about some of this stuff. That’s the thing that’s hard. I feel like I was too exaggerated and ardent sometimes.”

Yet their ardor, and great songs like “Closer to Fine” and “Ghost,” are part of what created the intense relationship between the Indigo Girls and their listeners.

When Bombach sets up a camera outside a performance and interviews attendees, we hear from audience members who say the Indigos music helped them recover from divorce or get sober. One tearful woman says it convinced her not to give up on life. “It kept me from checking out.”

That connection with the audience is partly due to the role the two played in giving voice to women and to gay people at a time when misogyny was endemic in pop music and few performers were openly gay.

“They are, in many ways, queer icons,” said Bombach. “They were out very early in their career, at a time when no one else was out. It’s important in a sense of queer history to explore that, and get an understanding from them what that really felt like.”

In the movie Ray says the pair shouldn’t be credited with too much. “It’s not just us,” she says. “I’m not trying to deflect it. I really have this mystical opinion. I’m talking about synchronicity and critical mass, people feeling the same response to that same song at the same time, and, you have this sense that you’re being held by something.”

On the same topic Saliers says, “Your life hooked into our journey, and we met in that journey, and that is awesome.”


“It’s Only Life After All”

1 p.m. Sunday, April 23. $12. Carter Presidential Library and Museum, Cecil Day Chapel, 441 John Lewis Freedom Parkway NE, Atlanta. The film screens at part of the Atlanta Film Festival, April 20-30.