A "suprisingly inspiring" documentary on singer Sophie B. Hawkins wows 800 at Tampa's film festival.

By Todd Martinez-Padilla Simmons

Sophie charmed the crowd at the
International Film Festival in Tampa

TAMPA - The film is over, the enthusiastic crowd is on its feet, and Sophie B. Hawkins is...well, surprised.

She and director Gigi Gaston snuck into their seats shortly after Gaston's acclaimed documentary on Hawkins, The Cream Will Rise, got underway as the kick-off film for the Tampa International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. Wouldn't you know it: Of 800 patrons, they got seats next to two women who not only didn't like the movie, they offered a scene-by-scene commentary of just how bad they thought it was. So persistent -- and loud -- was their criticism, Hawkins finally leaned over and asked the women if they had any idea who was sitting next to them.

"I don't give a fuck who's sitting next to us," snarled one, according to Hawkins, who shares the story from the stage during the question-and-answer session following the film. "So it's nice to see you standing."

It's a story not everyone would share. But Hawkins -- who starts the Q&A by telling the crowd, "Ask anything you want, anything at all" and meant it -- isn't just anyone. In fact, it's doubtful that she's even one person: At any given moment, there seem to be at least three or four people battling it out inside.

She squats, she kneels, she dangles her legs off the stage, she wanders barefoot, microphone in hand, casually elegant in shredded jeans and hooded sweatshirt. Her wild mane of thick, wavy blond hair frames an angular, expressive face, and when her non-stop voice tumbles out in a throaty torrent, one understands how it sent "Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover" to No. 5 on the Billboard charts in 1992. Damn, I wish I were her lover. And I'm married. To a man.

"There's just something about her. A lot of people think that because of the way she looks, she's had it easy," says Gaston a few hours before the show. "But she has a big story to tell. If there's a 10-carat diamond here, I've only told one carat. I knew that the moment I met her."

In a pop landscape cheek-to-jowl with such female skyscrapers as Sara Mclachlin, Tori Amos, Madonna and Alanis Morissette, Hawkins nevertheless towers. An exceptional musician, a powerful writer and a supremely confident performer, she is clearly at the beginning of a career that now seems sure will encompass film, too. This is all the more remarkable when you take into account that she is a survivor of extensive childhood sexual abuse and a family it would be exceedingly charitable to describe as dysfunctional, a woman who left home at the age of 14 to move in with a 40-something musician boyfriend in New York City. So much in the traditional sense has already gone wrong. But what hasn't killed her has, without a doubt, made her stronger.

"There were so many obstacles in her life, many of which I don't understand to this day. I think there's something bigger there that I haven't discovered yet," says Gaston. "It's about overcoming your demons. Most people, including myself, are held back by them. She's not."

To the contrary, Hawkins' demons probably deserve writing credits. When she discusses her work -- which includes the 1996 smash "As I Lay Me Down," at 67 consecutive weeks the longest-running single in adult pop chart history -- she makes frequent reference to the pain of creation, which she calls "a beautiful struggle." It's gut wrenching, she concedes, but the appreciation of her fans and the joy of performing are the rewards that make it worthwhile.

"If we didn't create, what would we be," Hawkins asks. The answer is something she has no interest in knowing. Extensively studying percussion as a teen and beginning to write her own music, Hawkins began performing around New York at some of the city's hottest clubs, including CBGB and the Bitter End. She played with her own bands, with Bryan Ferry of Roxy Music fame -- even on advertising jingles, fast building a reputation as a talented musician and singer. She used the exposure to get her demo tape (and not just any demo tape; this one had 50 songs) before recording industry reps, and soon, the big companies were knocking at her door. She finally signed with Columbia/Sony Music in 1992 and released Tongues and Tails, which immediately went gold.

"Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover" was the unlikely single that drove the album's success. Not only did the song feature lyrics about making love with another woman, but the ethereal, erotic video Hawkins made to support it (much of which is included in The Cream) was banned by MTV. She was forced to record a second version, which looks something like Amy Grant meets Grunge -- a fact about which she remains bitter.

"They were fucking wrong," she rants, invoking the "f" word perhaps a dozen more times as she describes how taken advantage of she felt as a young artist. The same thing wouldn't happen again, one feels sure.

With her second album, Whaler, complete, and preparations underway for a 1996 tour, she had a chance meeting with Gaston at a script reading in Los Angeles. Gaston was already a fan of her music, and Hawkins invited her to a practice session, "but only if she promised to stay at least two hours, because most of my friends would walk out after 10 minutes." Gaston stayed 10 hours and immediately proposed a "rockumentary" on the upcoming tour. And while Gaston had "never even shot a Polaroid before," Hawkins accepted.

The project was more than either bargained for. In quieter moments away from the manic rehearsal studio, Hawkins talked about her upbringing and background, which eventually led to filming at the family home with her mother, a writer. In the course of those conversations, her boozy, headcase of a mom reveals that Sophie B. was abused sexually as a child -- memories of which Hawkins had long repressed. (Exactly who performed the abuse is a fact that has been blocked out under threat of litigation; Gaston uses such sound affects as a door slamming and glass breaking each time anyone speaks the abuser/s name/s. Her relationship with her parents today is more strained than ever: "They don't want to see me the way I am.")

Hawkins' resulting entry into therapy is dutifully recorded on film, as is her progress as she begins to face the past. Gaston asked at several points if she wanted to shelve the film. Hawkins' response: "No. How can I?"

"For me, it was fascinating. Subconsciously, Sophie wanted to know. She's the bravest woman I've ever met," Gaston says. "If anything frightens her, she doesn't back away. She wants to face it and go to the other side."

"I was the one who wanted to quit several times -- for so many different reasons. I felt I was incapable of this big a task," Gaston continues. "There were so many problems, with people threatening to sue. And Sophie would always find a way around it."

Perhaps the most surprising fact is that despite all the pain, Hawkins says she wouldn't trade her childhood for anything. Those experiences made her who she is now. Witnessing that "has helped me accept my childhood, too, and all the things that happened to me," says Gaston, herself a prodigy who began riding at the age of 3 and made the 1980 U.S. Olympic equestrian team.

Despite her lack of directorial experience, Gaston has created a startlingly solid feature in The Cream. Marked by a dizzying, relentless layering of images and sound, the film blends interview footage with fast-paced snippets of Hawkins in the studio and on stage. The ultimately sympathetic portrait of Hawkins that emerges doesn't gloss over the performer's rough spots, however: Interviews with those who work with her reveal a demanding, sometimes difficult perfectionist. Says her manager: "When Sophie is happy, we're all happy. When she's unhappy, we're miserable."

Variety called the film "dark, surprisingly inspiring," and "unexpectedly compelling." As in Tampa, The Cream got a standing ovation last year at its premiere at Los Angeles Outfest. The early buzz on the film was strong enough that Imagine Entertainment signed Gaston for a "mid-six figure" deal last year: Gaston's Madame Lupescu, the story of a pre-1940s romance between Romania's King Carol and Magda Lupescu. Oscar-winning director/producer Sydney Pollack recently met with Gaston and Hawkins, says Gaston, and is looking for a project on which the trio can collaborate.

Which is an entirely logical thing to do. Gaston and Hawkins love working together, and audiences adore Sophie B. Fans lined up for more than an hour at the Tampa Theater for autographs from the emerging pop diva. Unlike many others in the public eye, Hawkins took time to engage each one, personalizing her autographs and making pleasant small talk.

And while Hawkins may have been surprised at the audience reaction to her film, perhaps the most surprising thing was the time it took in the Q&A for someone to ask the one question on everyone's mind: Does Sophie have a girlfriend?

"I wouldn't even call her a girlfriend," smiles Hawkins coyly, as she heads toward the stage curtain, "because we've been living together for three years."

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