Documentary “Still Working 9 to 5” captures all the humor, real issues, and hard work surrounding the classic comedy. [SXSW Film Festival]

December 19th, 1980, is memorable for two reasons: it’s the day I was born and Colin Higgins’s 9 to 5 hit theaters. It, a workplace comedy featuring three female leads, went up against the likes of Robert Altman’s Popeye and Sidney Poitier’s Stir Crazy, and took home upwards of $100 million by the time it finished its theatrical run. Right now, female-led films are somehow still considered box office risks, but, back in the late 1970s, it was the longest of long shots. It didn’t matter that you had two-time Oscar winner Jane Fonda (Klute), Oscar-nominee Lily Tomlin (Nashville), or singer superstar Dolly Parton (in her first theatrical role), they were considered risky, especially in a film with a premise centered on three secretaries who kidnap their boss and reform their office practices. The documentary Still Working 9 to 5 from documentarian Camille Hardman (Big Dreamers) does more than explore the sometimes tumultuous making of the seminal comedy, but also the work which inspired it which continues to this day.


Dolly Parton in STILL WORKING 9 TO 5. Photo Credit: Brian Tweedt.

If you focus solely on the film, 9 to 5 was originally written by Patricia Resnick, featured five female leads, and was more of a dark comedy. Once Colin Higgins came aboard the project, it was altered to its current state with three leads and more fantastical bits of comedy, like the Snow White poison sequence with Tomlin’s Violet. Though Resnick came up with the concept that Higgins would adjust, the concept of it came from Fonda and producing partner Bruce Gilbert (The China Syndrome). The two wanted to make a film that explored how women were being treated in the workplace, which, in the ‘70s, wasn’t particularly great. Beyond the sexual harassment, controlling bosses, and terrible hours, there was also horrible pay, responsibilities beyond their original job description, no notice or consideration of job postings within their company, and unequal pay between themselves and their male counterparts for the same jobs. Had Hardman examined the film alone, the making of it, the coming together of these three women, what it was like working together, the creation of the iconic theme song, and its extended legacy through a television program fronted by Oscar-winner Rita Moreno (1962’s West Side Story) and two musicals (Broadway and London’s West End) opening nearly a decade apart, there’d be plenty of material to explore or examine. There’s such a rich history of the making of the film, from Tomlin’s admission of nearly leaving the project twice to hearing how Parton originally came up with the theme song, that a documentary exploring just it would be reason enough for fans of the film to purchase a ticket. Luckily, Hardman goes deeper and looks into what precipitated the film and the continued fight today.

For instance, many are familiar with actor Fonda’s activism, her picture often found its way into the papers during the various protests during the Trump Administration, often with her bringing friend celebrities along with her. What you may not know is the idea for 9 to 5, was born out of Fonda’s friendship with activist Karen Nussbaum, the creator of organization 9 to 5, from which the film borrowed its title. Naussbaum’s organization fought for equality in the workplace. More than that, 9 to 5 fought in support of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) which would guarantee legal rights and protections for Americans regardless of sex.

Still Working really hits its stride where it balances the entertainment and love for the film against the real pain that inspired it, which very much continues to this day. Hardman weaves various present-day talking head interviews, archived interview footage, film snippets, and more, laying out the making of 9 to 5, but does so through the lens of a fight that’s been on-going since 1923 when the first iteration of the ERA was introduced to Congress. Amid the laughs and tears of learning about how much the film means to the cast of the films and it’s spin-offs, Hardman lays the case for how the film worked to shift public opinion, to put before the general public the idea that a workplace shouldn’t be populated by skeezy co-workers, and to make it plain to anyone willing to pay attention to the narrative that helping women feel safe and secure in their jobs only uplifts us all. The true pain of Still Working is in realizing that 9 to 5 is as cutting about workforce inequality in the late ‘70s as it is today. By primarily tracking the success or failure of the ERA from 1973 until 2021, the audience is guided through how arguments for childcare support, flexible shift hours, equal pay, and other detrimental issues which 9 to 5 addresses, which 9 to 5 fought to provide, aren’t just issues relevant in a COVID-19 remote working era, but have been relevant for decades. For people of my generation who are working parents, 9 to 5 sought to make things better for *our* parents so it would be easier and, if Hardman’s evidence is correct, we were condemned to fight the same battles because it served corporations better to keep employees fighting amongst themselves.

Areas where the documentary falters are few, but significant. In one instance, it goes from talking about a very serious aspect of the ERA fight, specifically an aspect of Lilly Ledbetter’s fight for equal pay, straight into Dolly singing “9 to 5” live on stage. It’s a tonal whiplash that requires a moment to get over. Later, when addressing the #MeToo Movement, it’s introduced via the October 15th, 2017, tweet from actor Alyssa Milano prompting everyone on Twitter to use the hashtag to share their stories. From a zeitgeist perspective, this is the moment that #MeToo really took off, prompting global protests and actions in solidarity for change. What may be lost for those who are unaware, though, amid the wonderful examples of protests in Chile, Turkey, and elsewhere, is that Tarana Burke is the founder of the movement, and she’s introduced only after the topic is broached, after the scenes worldwide, and only briefly via a speech she’s given. With all the other activists from 9 to 5 and Pro ERA organizations, having a more direct declaration of Burke’s involvement in #MeToo would ensure that her legacy remained intact and that ownership of the movement didn’t accidentally transfer to Milano.


STILL WORKING 9 TO 5 director Camille Hardman.

Try as Hardman might to make Still Working 9 to 5 an uplifting film, something she largely succeeds at in a celebration of the ideas of the film, as well as its cast and crew, there’s also a dark cloud which overshadows it and it’s the reality of the world we live in. At one point in the documentary, Dabney Coleman, the actor who played the dastardly boss Mr. Hart in the film, points out that humor makes learning things easier to handle. He’s not wrong and Hardman clearly understands this, using the love of the film as both cover and opportunity to explore and expose the long-standing fight for equality. Even as current president Joe Biden has offered his support toward passing the ERA, it is still not done, meaning the fight continues. So, every day, as workers all over the globe get out of bed, shuffle to the kitchen, pouring themselves a cup of ambition, it’s not just defense of their ideas and who gets credit that continues, but whether or not support will ever come to help them and, therefore, help us all, rise up. We’ve got a year until the original ERA’s centennial. Based on what Hardman presents, I wouldn’t be too optimistic that it’ll pass in the U.S. by then, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hope that the tide won’t turn our way.

Screening during the 2022 SXSW Film Festival.

SXSW Screening Information:

*Sunday, March 13th, Screening @ 3:45pm CT, SXSW Film Theater

*Monday, March 14th, On-line Screening @ 9:00am CT

*Monday, March 14th, Satellite Screening @ 6:00pm CT, AFS Cinema

*Friday, March 18th Screening @ 4:45pm CT, Stateside Theatre

For more information, head to the official Still Working 9 to 5 website or SXSW webpage.

Final Score: 4 out of 5.

Categories: In Theaters, Reviews, streaming

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