The Slits' Tessa Pollitt & Documentary Director Talk Punk Pioneers' Legacy

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The Slits

After decades of being underappreciated, despite breaking music and gender barriers, the Slits -- the ‘70s British all-female punk band -- are finally given their due, this time on the big screen.

Directed by William Badgley, Here to Be Heard: The Story of the Slits traces the career of the iconoclastic band from their beginnings in the burgeoning U.K. punk movement to the death of the Slits’ charismatic lead singer Ari Up in 2010. Married with archival footage, the documentary features new interviews with Slits bassist Tessa Pollitt, guitarist Viv Albertine and drummer Palmolive, as well as their contemporaries including Paul Cook (Sex Pistols), Budgie (Siouxsie and the Banshees), Neneh Cherry, Gina Birch (the Raincoats), and Don Letts (Big Audio Dynamite). Here to Be Heard first premiered in Britain last October and will be shown in North America starting on May 5 in Brooklyn. 

Pollitt tells Billboard that it’s a huge relief for her that the band’s story has now been seen and heard through this film. “The respect is well overdue,” she says, “and finally we can feel some sense of peace for the hardships and struggles we all went through both as a group and individually. It does make me more appreciative of the band’s legacy.”

The initial idea for the film began with Forster and the band’s tour manager Jennifer Shagawat; footage was shot during the reformed Slits’ tour prior to Forster’s death from cancer at the age of 48. Afterwards, Shagawat passed on the project to her filmmaker friend William Badgley to complete. The director admits that he wasn’t entirely familiar with the Slits’ story and music at the time. “I came in cold on the project,” Badgley recalls. “It was like, ‘Yeah, the Slits,’ and then not much after that. Then of course for the next five years, I did literally nothing but immerse myself in the band.”

Here to Be Heard captures the camaraderie during their first incarnation in the mid ‘70s, and shows how groundbreaking it was that four women with virtually no musical training formed a band; they later shared the bill with the Clash on the latter’s White Riot tour in 1977. With an ‘us-against-the world’ feminist stance, the Slits battled societal conventions through their music and appearance. The film also documents the Slits’ musical evolution from punk rock to dub and reggae, which can be heard on the group’s now-classic 1979 debut album Cut. As journalist/professor Vivien Goldman said about the Slits in the film: “They were provocative, they were outrageous, but also they were having fun because they hadn’t been manufactured...They were presenting and pitching themselves the way they wanted to, unreconstructed, without giving a fuck.”

“Being confrontational at that time was not just a battle that the Slits were faced with,” says Pollitt. “This situation applied to our generation politically, socially, and racially we all as young people were confronted with. As young people with individual different agendas we faced this together -- there were battles to be fought, we were at war with society in general. We had to grow up fast. Our confrontational stance was both performance-wise and in our everyday lives not conscious, but a survival skill that dominated our lives in general. This obviously would infiltrate songwriting and performance.”

Following the Slits’ second album, 1982’s Return of the Giants Slits, the band members went their separate ways and were not heard from again for a long while. It was a period of readjustment for everyone involved. “The breakup of any band like that is like the breakup of a marriage,” says Badgley, “so much so that often the individuals are left, in the midst of their sorrow, with the daunting task of having to define who they are as individuals, which isn’t easy. I felt it was important to extend the timeline of the film to include who each member is now, because each individual finds personal grounding on their own and I think that’s really inspiring.”

In the mid-2000s, Forster and Pollitt reformed the band with younger female musicians and later released the album Trapped Animal in 2009. Those latter-day members, including singer Hollie Cook, guitarist Dr. No and drummer Anna Schulte, spoke about their tenure in the band for the film. “I think they really appreciated being given the opportunity to be in the band and to be personally mentored by Ari, who seemed to be a person who took that sort of thing very seriously,” says Badgley. “She seemed to understand on some level the power and insight that she had to give and she gave it unselfishly, truly remarkable.”

Ultimately, the influence and vivacious personality of Forster loomed large in the documentary through archival footage that captured her energy and humor. Those qualities made the last moments she spent with the band all the more poignant. “I feel blessed to have met her and worked with her since we were teenagers,” says Pollitt of her friend. “Ari’s whole life was dedicated to her love of music and putting her message across at whatever personal cost. I have nothing but admiration for her strength and bravery but also for her vulnerability. Her musicality was so unique and her message in creativity so powerful and honest. There were no boundaries for Ari -- she was indeed a free spirit, and a rebellious soul.”

The last 10 years have seen somewhat of a belated reevaluation of the group’s legacy through articles (with Cut appearing on numerous ‘best albums’ lists), as well as books such as Zoë Street Howe’s Typical Girls? and Albertine’s own Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. During that period, musicians from the Riot Grrl era including Bikini Kill's Kathleen Hanna and Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein have acknowledged the Slits along with their contemporaries the Raincoats as influences. For director Badgley, the Slits embodied both freedom and self-expression, qualities that sum up the spirit of this project. “It’s really a ‘to thine own self be true’ sort of film,” he says. “I see them as true artists in the sense that they aren’t willing to be placed in any sort of traditional types of boxes or to be limited by anything.”

Pollitt shares a similar sentiment in explaining why the Slits’ story resonates more than 40 years after the band’s original formation. “If you have something to say that is universal and that will inspire others,” she says, “take a risk and dive into unknown territory, and tread where none has trod before. If at first you don't succeed, then try, try and try again. If the message is important, then you will eventually get heard and hopefully inspire others to do so. I would like others to walk away from the film and carry fearlessness, hope and inspiration.”

North American screening dates for Here to Be Heard: The Story of the Slits:

May 5 - Brooklyn, N.Y. - Alamo Drafthouse
May 6 - Jersey City - WFMU Theater
May 7 - Philadelphia - PhilaMoca
May 8 - Brooklyn, N.Y. - Nite Hawk
May 9 - Baltimore - The Parkway Theater
May 10 - Washington, D.C. - AFI Silver
May 14  - Toronto - The Royal
May 15 - Pittsburgh - Row House Cinema
May 16 - Cleveland - The Capitol Theater
May 18 - Detroit - Third Man Records
May 20 - Chicago - The Empty Bottle
May 27 - Dallas - Texas Theater
May 28 - Austin - Alamo Drafthouse The Ritz
May 31 - Birmingham, AL - Saturn
June 20 - Bellingham, WA - The Shakedown
June 21 - Olympia, WA - The Capitol Theater
June 22 - 24 - Seattle - Northwest Film Forum
June 23 - Portland, OR - The Hollywood Theater
June 24 - Oakland - The Parkway Theater
June 24 - San Francisco - Alamo Drafthouse
June 25 - Los Angeles - The Regent