Lydia Lunch plays a punk proprietress dispensing advice from her bar, Tiny’s Tight Spot. Asia Argento is a reclusive, mysterious Italian rock star. Nic Harcourt portrays the sleazy, greasy industry dude. With these and other clever cameos, Venus Flytrap, the web series about an all-girl punk band that recently launched an Indiegogo campaign, comes across as street-smart cinema vérité as much as the scripted comedy it is. That’s because its creator, Adele Bertei, is drawing on a long history as a working musician herself.
“A lot of my personal experience as a woman and queer in the music business will be parodied in the show for sure,” Bertei says. The diminutive singer, guitarist and keyboardist has been kicking around the underground since the late 1970s, when she was in the seminal New York post-punk bands The Bloods and The Contortions. She played a DJ in the cult-classic Lizzie Borden film Born in Flames, was signed to Geffen as a solo artist in the early '80s, and has written songs for the Pointer Sisters, Sheena Easton and Thomas Dolby, among others.
“There was so much homophobia in the music business and so much sexism,” Bertei says of her early days. “It was hellish. I was really tortured.” The return of blatant misogyny and prejudice under President Trump has given Bertei a broadened sense of mission. “Comedy is the best truth teller.”
Bertei first conceived Venus Flytrap as a feature film, “a female Spinal Tap.” But she was soon convinced that it would work better in episodes. Shows such as Transparent and Orange Is the New Black have demonstrated that small-screen viewers are ready for unusual stories told, as Bertei says, from “the female gaze.” Still, she’s looking for alternative revenue sources because, as she puts it, “It would never work if a showrunner came in and cut the lady balls off it.”
Instead of soliciting suits for cash, Bertei turned to her impressive roster of friends to build a killer creative team, including Alice Bag, Margaret Cho, Jerry Stahl, Gail Ann Dorsey, Donita Sparks, Silas Howard and Guinevere Turner — all of whom play small roles in the series. These are people who have lived the stories Venus Flytrap tells. “It made sense that my real-life experience could be applied to this basic comedy takedown of the music industry,” says Lunch, who has known Bertei since their New York no-wave days. “Everybody who’s involved has had their fair share of ups, downs and sideways in the music and entertainment industry.”
Harcourt related to the script because for the last several years, he’s been managing a female singer, Kita Klane. “I see it every day; the rampant sexism is just ridiculous,” says the longtime DJ and tastemaker. In one VFT scene, he berates a band manager for calling him on his cellphone, yelling with an evil arrogance that’s all too familiar to anyone who’s spent 10 minutes in the music business. “I play an asshole version of myself, which maybe in certain quarters, that’s not a stretch,” he says.
The punk feminists of Venus Flytrap may be just what the world needs right now. They’re a bracing tonic against television's usual bro-heavy take on the music industry, whether it’s Vinyl, Roadies or The Get Down — not to mention the shit-storm of sexism coming from Washington these days. “It’s really a 'fuck you' to the politics of the present day,” Bertei says. “After last summer and the negative rhetoric against women and minorities, we decided this can’t just be a piss-take of the music industry boys' club; it has to be a real punch-back to everything that’s going on.”
“We need to fucking laugh right now, because we’re all ready to pull our hair out and cry every day,” says Lunch.
Snippets of the show can be seen on YouTube and the Indiegogo page. They’re spot-on: irreverent, deadpan, raunchy, pissed. The show's pink-haired lead, Kelly Leon Guerrero, is a born rock star, snaky and sleazy, walking down an L.A. street in bra, panties and lots of ink.
The fundraising campaign’s goal is to raise $50,000. After that, Bertei, who is creating the show with producer Natalie Hill for their company Zami Girl Stories, hopes they can find a female-led production company to help them out. “I want [Transparent creator] Jill Soloway to mentor me!” Bertei says. “She’s broken a lot of ground. She’s opened the world to a different way of seeing.”
A true groundbreaker and stealthy ball-buster herself, Bertei has waited a long time for her moment. Since mostly leaving music behind in the early '90s, she has been working in film and television, directing some projects for Playboy and Showtime but often working more behind the scenes as an editor, ghostwriter and viral video director. Now, with visionaries such as Soloway, Patty Jenkins and Sofia Coppola opening doors for female filmmakers, her time may have finally come.
“I think women are doing the most provocative and fascinating work in terms of independent film and television,” she says. “In all of these realms, in politics and the arts, the cultural gatekeepers are shaking in their boots. I think we’re witnessing the last death cries of the patriarchy. They’re rearing their ugly heads and they’re screaming because they know it’s almost over.”