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Before the song 9 to 5 cemented Dolly Parton as an icon, she was a popular country singer as yet with no screen credits to her name. That all changed when she was approached with the idea for 9 to 5, a new comedy film commenting on the treatment of women in the workplace.
This documentary centres on three icons and stars of the original 1980 film 9 to 5: Dolly Parton, activist Jane Fonda and comedienne Lily Tomlin. It’s a documentary both about the production of the film and Dolly’s most well-known song, but it also forms a commentary on women’s rights in the workplace from 1980 to the present day.
Still Working 9 to 5
Director: Camille Hardman
Release date: March 14, 2022 (SXSW)
Rating: Not yet rated
The 1980 film 9 to 5 started life as a dark comedy, in which three maligned workers fantasise about murdering their misogynistic boss and taking women’s rights into their own hands. It underwent several iterations before becoming the film we know and love today, but now in this documentary we have talking heads interviews with Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin (the three stars of the film) as well as Rita Moreno and others who were involved in its production, talking about the film’s legacy.
It seems novel to me that we now have a documentary about a film that came out over 40 years ago. There doesn’t seem to be one clear motive for producing the film now: we may speculate that the filmmakers have brought the subject back into the spotlight because it ties into recent feminist movements, but there’s no specific point in time that seems to make this obvious. Rather, the film first tackles the history of the 1980 film 9 to 5, including interviews with its stars and producers, before moving on to become a broader narrative about equal rights in the workplace.
This doc can get a little muddled in its messaging, particularly when it goes on to reveal that the TV spinoff of the 1980 film 9 to 5 wasn’t pushing the same agenda and felt less progressive than the original. It also feels disjointed when it goes on to talk about feminist movements throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s – history already covered in films like On the Basis of Sex and the recent TV series Mrs America. It feels like a film of distinct phases, and when we emerge from the recent history of feminism, we’re thrown back into the 9 to 5 world with interviews about the live-action 2009 musical. Even some of the producers seemed unsure of why a ‘dated, 40-year-old film’ was being resurrected for the stage, so I do speculate about why it’s covered at length in this documentary.
There’s a little more talk about diversity and the treatment of women of colour in the workplace when the doc puts the musical under the spotlight, but it’s clear that this area of discrimination still leaves a lot to be desired and that more inclusive practices are needed to represent more diverse groups in every industry.
Nevertheless, there’s an informative mixture of facts and interviews, and those with the original stars and producers of the film give useful insight into why the film performed so well on first release. The cultural impact is clear: the film lampooned the chauvinistic practices of men in the workplace and enabled generations of women to stand up for themselves to fight for equal pay, flexible hours and fair treatment.
Yet the documentary is also aware that these issues are still rife today, and that no single film is going to change that. It feels as though many of the more recent feminist movements are shoehorned in, for example #MeToo in the wake of the Weinstein scandal – there’s even an uncomfortable piece of footage featuring the offender, which is something I’d personally have left on the editing room floor. Although it has good intentions, this documentary can sometimes feel disjointed and it perhaps could have done with a little more time to smooth some of its rough edges.
I’m also fascinated, watching this, to see how misogynistic attitudes towards women have only recently been challenged, and that as little as 40 years ago, people only began to point out that women were still treated with overt discrimination in the workplace. Of course there is still work to do – the film’s final call to action reveals the intention to call for change – but for now it’s clear we’re all ‘still working 9 to 5’ in many of the same ways as women were 40 years ago.
Still Working 9 to 5 is a film of many parts: an exploration of why the 1980 film was produced, a brief history of feminist movements in the late half of the 20th and early 21st centuries, and a commentary on the film’s influence and the need for radical reforms for working women now. Although it isn’t perfectly executed, it’s engaging to learn more about the stars behind the films and how they brought their distinct personalities to their roles for a powerhouse onscreen ensemble.