For Isaac Olsen, the story of cult Tacoma garage-rock band Girl Trouble is personal. The band—now in its 30th year—is family, quite literally. “I knew I was the only person who could make this movie,” says the 28-year-old director, discussing his Strictly Sacred: The Story of Girl Trouble, which debuts at SIFF.
From practically the opening moments of Olsen’s third feature (and first doc), the lineage is clear, but not overstated. Strictly Sacred follows the career of the most unheralded yet revered Tacoma band of a generation—which, in true Tacoma fashion, never came very close to “making it,” but collected a lot of black eyes and bizarre stories along the way. Gradually we sense that the man behind the camera is the nephew of Girl Trouble drummer Bon Von Wheelie and guitarist Big Kahuna (aka siblings Bonnie and Dave Henderson). Olsen grew up surrounded by the band, and we see him in diapers in old home movies, but that’s not the point. Strictly Sacred is more than a labor of love, says Olson: “I didn’t want to be the enamored nephew, or to make this family love-fest thing. Part of my job was to be as objective as possible.” And that, plus the ridiculous stockpile of archival footage amassed by the band, is what makes the movie work.
Yes, Olsen and the band are related, but the Girl Trouble family tree transcends bloodlines. That as much as anything is what this film captures. The 90-minute documentary—launched by a $5,000 Kickstarter campaign to get “the train on the track,” per Olsen—is about a doggedly idealistic band’s life on the DIY fringes. Like any good doc, Strictly Sacred lays out the facts, detailing the band’s place in Northwest rock annals as the original underdog on Sub Pop’s roster and the strange, go-go-dancing stepsister to the grunge phenomenon. Olsen interviews those who were there for the ride, including K Records’ Calvin Johnson, The Rocket ’s Art Chantry, and Tacoma’s favorite daughter, Neko Case. But beyond the rich DIY music history, Strictly Sacred is really the very personal story of castoffs and punks bonding—and forging a rock-’n’-roll family —that’s so stubborn and peculiar it’s managed to defy age and time.
“We’re pretty high on the weirdo factor,” says Von Wheelie today of her family and Girl Trouble’s roots. “I think the family story can suck people in [to the film]. It’s just the story of this family that kind of had these weirdo kids . . . It’s more of a personal thing than a band thing. It’s going to be a little scary to see how people react to that,” she admits of the film. “This is really a story of our life.”
As we learn, Girl Trouble’s story wouldn’t be possible without “The Babe” and “The Powerhouse,” as the younger generation of Hendersons nicknamed their parents. Von Wheelie and Kahuna’s Depression-era folks let Girl Trouble gestate on the wooded, cluttered Henderson family plot in Tacoma, and in that open-door environment, they essentially adopted Girl Trouble’s other two members, singer Kurt “KP” Kendall and bassist Dale Phillips. To this day, Girl Trouble’s four members—none married, none with kids, and none far removed from where it all started—celebrate Christmas together, something “most bands don’t do,” Von Wheelie notes.
With historical photos and a then-and-now view of Tacoma (think ugly waterfront ruins vs. empty waterfront condos), Strictly Sacred also provides a history of that gritty, oft-ridiculed port city. (Former Mayor Harold Moss once compared it to bombed-out Beirut.) Olsen crafts a very distinct story of place via these musical misfits. Thirty years after its first show, Girl Trouble reflects, and remains true to, the city’s humble roots. Its motto, “Eluding fame since 1984,” is appropriately self-effacing, though it undersells the band’s regional influence.
“For us to be from Tacoma,” says Von Wheelie, “that’s part of the Girl Trouble thing. Back then, we had to create our own fun. That was the deal, you know. We really had to band together. I think that makes you a little tougher.”
STRICTLY SACRED SIFF Cinema Uptown (511 Queen Anne Ave. N.), $10–$12, 5 p.m. Mon., May 26. Renton IKEA Performing Arts Center, 8:30 p.m. Tues., May 27.
For more SIFF coverage, see all of Seattle Weekly’s predictions and previews here.