Bessie Smith to Lady Gaga is a wide swath in modern music, and “Women Who Rock” includes them and many in between Friday on PBS.
“Rock 'n' roll is a very wide river,” filmmaker Carol Stein says. She and Susan Wittenberg “wanted people who represented various eras,” Stein says.
“We were trying to figure it out by categories,” Wittenberg says. “It's a big tent.”
Though there's a chasm between Mahalia Jackson and Madonna, and both are featured in the film, the common denominator is music with attitude.
The documentary opens with James Brown singing, “This is a man's world.” It soon cuts to Christina Aguilera belting the same song, and the irony is lost on no one.
Women are the top grossers in music in the 21st century, the documentary notes. But women's rock roots go back to the beginnings of the genre.
The catalyst for the film was an exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, which helped the filmmakers decide who should be in the documentary. Darlene Love was finally inducted in 2011, and though her legions of fans had been asking about her inclusion for years, Love was sanguine.
She, of the voice that never stops and who has been hitting the charts since 1961, is completely at peace with how long it took for her to be recognized in the museum.
“It bothered me at first, and then I didn't think about it anymore,” she says. “You know what? I will be in there, in time.”
Love is probably best known for singing “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” on “The Late Show With David Letterman,” which she's done annually since 1986 and always brings the house down.
Love started singing in a girl group, the Blossoms, when she was 18. Years of doing backup for everyone from Tom Jones to Dionne Warwick followed. While deciding whether she could go solo, she had a day job: cleaning houses. She was scrubbing a toilet in a woman's house when her hit “Christmas” came on the radio. She knew then that she had to pursue a solo career.
She did a show at The Roxy. She recalls singing “Hungry Heart,” and some skinny guy in the back of the room was whooping it up. She asked someone, “Who was that in the back cutting up so bad?” Bruce Springsteen, Steve Van Zandt told her.
Ultimately the filmmakers want to convey “that rock 'n' roll is thought of as a male art form,” Stein says. “From the start, women have made a profound contribution to the art form. This was a film honoring that these women were incredible artists. This is basically a tribute.”
“To me it is a joyous celebration,” Wittenberg says.