Riot Acts is one of those few documentaries that succeeds because of what it chooses not to tell you. This solid 2009 flick comes right out and identifies its focus in the subtitle, Flaunting Gender Deviance in Music Performance. Yes, Riot focuses entirely upon independent musicians and bands featuring transgendered and gender-variant performers, some of whom are in the process of transitioning. All the bands interviewed here--which run from the gorgeous folk of Coyote Grace to the ribald comedic trio Systyr Act, from the politically punk-y the Shondes to Baltimore's own garage-rock power trio the Degenerettes (which includes occasional City Paper contributor Rahne Alexander)--are very candid about their lives as musicians and human beings, and sometimes touch on the difficult of realizing and living in a body that doesn't feel right.
But what director Madsen Minax doesn't do is label the performers. Riot Acts spotlights and identifies the names of a wealth of artists--from the ridiculously talented Novice Theory to San Francisco's storytelling hip-hop MC Katastrophe and the positively anarchic Trannysaurus Sex--but the movie never tries to shoehorn them into biology-is-destiny square pegs of mainstream mediaspeak. Conventional language and its labels can be a prison house of normalcy--see: modifiers such as "male-to-female" and "female-to-male"--and Minax lets his subjects tell you about their lives in their own words. En route, you find out who they are instead of having them nice and safely categorized according to the more socially acceptable gender identities.
And what stories they have to tell. Riot Acts is as much about life on the road as it is about being a transgendered artist and the issues that introduces, touching on everything from voice changes that happen after taking hormones to the sometimes social awkwardness of playing a long-time favorite dyke bar when you're, well, no longer identifying as a lesbian woman. What emerges is not only a better understanding of transgendered artists, but a wonderful peek into the variety of music kicking around the queer underground.