If Madonna is the mother of reinvention, Ani DiFranco is the mother of natural progression. With her documentary Render: Spanning Time With Ani DiFranco, the Anti-Folk singer gives us a glimpse at this progression with snapshots of performances shot by Hilary Goldberg between 1997 and 2001. There are no dates specified (the first shot says “20th Century”), though you could probably figure it out by looking at her hair (here, purple and white dreadlocks swept up with a bandana). While the film sheds little light on what life is like on the road for a touring artist, it does offer insight into the germination of DiFranco’s ever-ambitious political endeavors as well as a rare peek inside the notebook of one of rock’s most prolific singer-songwriters. The film also displays DiFranco’s quirkier side, from her proposed “reluctant boyfriend holding-pen” to her occasional schoolmaster audience wrist-slapping (for anyone who’s ever been annoyed at a concert by the ever-so-lit 17-year-old screeching and dancing next to you). While her recent compulsion to add horns to every song old and new is on full display, songs from DiFranco’s slightly bloated double-album Revelling/Reckoning seem more at home here in their natural habitat. A live rendition of “Subdivision,” the “controversial” song that kept the singer from performing on David Letterman last year, is particularly moving as DiFranco expounds on the peripheral effects of racism on architecture. At the end of Render, opening act Bitch & Animal sing a lyric that conjures DiFranco’s own early days as a bald-headed feminist warrior with socio-political change on the brain: “I’m just a little girl-boy trying to make my way in a man’s world.” It’s a striking juxtaposition with the woman who, for better or worse, never stops spanning time.
Shot on video over a span of five years, the image quality of this Righteous Babe production varies from scene to scene. Some of the more poorly lit performances are extremely grainy while the more controlled interview clips are never less than exquisite to look at (particularly a black-and-white shot of DiFranco with the Washington Monument in the background). Sound levels vary from segment to segment and while only a handful of performances seem to have been recorded straight from the board, most are far from dynamic.
Righteous Babe offers a fairly limited selection of special features on Render: "In The Way" is a bonus live performance of an unreleased DiFranco song; "Ani's Garden Of Simple," with DiFranco behind the camera, is pretty (and pointless); "The Southern Center" provides information on the Southern Center for Human Rights; and "RBRrrrists" is a gallery of every current RBR artist, from DiFranco to Bitch & Animal and Utah Phillips. There's an added bonus for DiFranco fans (and we're assuming that's what you are): the "RBRrrrists" page for the 'Til We Outnumber 'Em compilation features a full-length audio clip of the folksinger's cover of Woody Guthrie's "Do Re Mi."
Audio/visual quality and bonus features aside, Render is an in-depth, often moving, portrait of DiFranco as a touring artist. It's also more than serviceable as thought-provoking commentary on the American criminal justice system. It goes without saying: Render is a must-have for DiFranco fans.