Sundance 2023: In Indigo Girls Documentary, Music, Nostalgia and the Search for Belonging Take Center Stage

This is one in a series of film reviews from the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, focused on films by women, trans or nonbinary directors that tell compelling stories about the lives of women and girls.

A still from It’s Only Life After All by Alexandria Bombach. (Jeremy Cowart / Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

One of the best things about director Alexandria Bombach’s documentary about folk rock duo The Indigo Girls, It’s Only Life After All, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is its easygoing intimacy. Singer-songwriters Amy Ray and Emily Saliers’ rapport, with both each other and the director, shines through a series of present-day interviews, concert footage, archival videos and recollections that foreground their music and their partnership over the last 40-plus years.

One of my college roommates and many of my friends in the late ’90s were absolutely obsessed with the Indigo Girls and, as such, their music punctuated my daily life for several years. If you’re a fan of their music, the documentary will trigger some welcome nostalgia and read as a charming look into the lives and work of two women whose music served as a soundtrack for a generation, particularly those who were teens and twenty-somethings coming out as LGBTQ+ in the late ’80s and ’90s. The experiences of some of their fans, shared via interviews, highlight the power of music to inspire feelings of belonging and community. After all, at the time, The Indigo Girls were a few of the only out lesbians on the folk scene.

A still from It’s Only Life After All. (Michael Lavine / Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

A year apart in school, Ray and Saliers began playing together as teenagers, writing songs separately and then meeting up to compose the music—a process they continued to hone when they later both transferred to Emory University and began to play together in earnest. Eventually, their popularity extended beyond their hometown of Atlanta, where they got their start as part of an eclectic and mostly welcoming music scene.  

Contrary to fan speculation, Ray and Saliers never dated each other, but they have and still are dedicated to a friendship full of mutual support, weathering moments of tension—like when Ray’s outgoing personality had her willing to be out in public well before the more private Saliers—with understanding. Playing music both together and apart throughout their careers, the duo also broadened their reach in 1993 by joining forces with Indigenous activist Winona Duke and founding Honor the Earth, an environmental organization.

The experiences of their fans highlight the power of music to inspire feelings of belonging and community.

A still from It’s Only Life After All. (Jeremy Cowart / Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

It’s Only Life After All runs a little long at just over two hours, but includes a robust selection of The Indigo Girl’s well-known songs, including the Grammy-winning “Closer to Fine,” that will likely having you humming their music long after the film has ended. Bombach also moves beyond the standard documentary format in ways that keep things upbeat and engaging. Ray and Saliers provided much of their own archival footage in the form of old tapes from high school jam sessions and videos of past concerts (Ray was a consummate archivist in her own right from the very beginning). And Bombach makes clever use of old media as a framing device (like projecting clips on a vintage television set) to convey how times have changed.

At heart, Ray and Saliers partnership takes center stage in a film filled with charming self-reflexivity and honesty, allowing them space to discuss the trajectory of their lives, talk about their songs, and consider the reception of both their music and their identities at a time when much of the public was still hostile to the LGBTQ+ community. We do see a glimpse into their lives now, meeting their respective partners’ and daughters, but ultimately, and to its benefit, the documentary spotlights The Indigo Girls as artists and activists, through the music and partnership that made them folk icons.

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Aviva Dove-Viebahn is an assistant professor of film and media studies at Arizona State University and a contributing editor for Ms.' Scholar Writing Program.