Film Review: Peaches Does HerselfLabia of love from one-woman Pussy Riot.
A concert movie with a difference, Peaches Does Herself is an artful documentary record of a highly theatrical show that the Toronto-born electro-rapper formerly known as Merrill Nisker, staged in her adopted hometown of Berlin in 2010 and 2011. A loosely biographical rock opera featuring outlandish costumes, transsexual dancers, lashings of smutty humor and simulated hardcore sex, this self-directed carnival of carnal excess feels like The Rocky Horror Picture Show with a postgrad doctorate in Queer Theory. Or perhaps a Lady Gaga extravaganza directed by John Waters.
Peaches Does Herself is an impressively bold statement from its director-star and her team of dancers, choreographers and designers. However, it is also an uncompromisingly avant-garde and sexually explicit work that will struggle for mainstream appeal. Peaches has a strong following among famous musicians—she has worked with Joan Jett, Iggy Pop, Christina Aguilera, Marilyn Manson, R.E.M. and more—but her own commercial profile remains decidedly niche. This film will enhance her cult reputation, but seems more likely to find a partisan audience on home viewing formats than convert new fans on theatre screens.
The filmed live show opens with a brief German-language lecture deconstructing the Peaches canon in highbrow theoretical terms, a wry satire both of self-serious Germans and lofty critics who see her work purely as a post-feminist commentary on gender roles. The lecturer is soon blasted into silence, first by a raucous garage-punk duo, then by Peaches herself, perched atop a giant bed as she flashes back to her first fumbling experiments with electro beats and salacious lyrics in the late 1990s. The veteran New York stripper and street busker Sandy Kane—aka The Naked Cowgirl—makes the first of several cameos here as kind of foul-mouthed fairy godmother.
The 80-minute show that follows is full of dazzling set-pieces, with Peaches reinventing herself along the way as porno-rapper in skimpy pink underwear, heavy-metal diva and future-punk Mad Max warrior queen. Wild costumes and graphic sexual imagery abound, from giant labial portals to elephantine strap-on dildos. In the final section, the star vomits fake blood, receives a sex change and acts out a doomed romance with the towering transsexual porn star Dannii Daniels, who performs fully naked. For the surreal climax, Peaches wanders out of the deserted theatre trailing the bloody shreds of an exploded prosthetic penis. She raps the final number riding a tricycle along a Berlin boulevard, paying homage to her roots as a street performance artist.
In our porn-saturated, post-Madonna mediascape, this kind of hypersexual shock-rock cabaret is more comical than confrontational, but socially conservative viewers may still find Peaches Does Herself challenging. At the Sundance London screening, there was a small but steady trickle of walkouts. The decision to include no biographical context outside the stage performance is more problematic, effectively narrowing the film’s appeal to established fans rather than curious first-timers. There is certainly enough subtext here for a fascinating conventional bio-doc on Peaches.
Ironically, one of the film’s other weak points is the music. Typical Peaches live shows are full of rowdy electro-punk and pounding techno anthems, whereas many of these theatrical re-workings drag by comparison. An interval cameo by Kane, which includes a slapdash solo rendition of a bawdy number called “I Love Dick” and an eye-watering trick involving nipples and lighted matches, also becomes an overlong distraction from the main event.
That said, this ambitious rock-doc still pushes plenty of buttons as polymorphously perverse Pop Art spectacle. Peaches shows technical competence as a first-time director, while the taboos she celebrates and subverts onstage make for funny, frank, full-frontal entertainment. Rewriting her musical journey from one-woman vagina monologue to pansexual pussy riot, Peaches Does Herself is a real labia of love.