Critically acclaimed filmmaker Beth Harrington will be honored with a Lifetime Achievement award from the Clark County Arts Commission at 6 p.m. Feb. 5 in the county council chambers. Harrington initially planned a career as a DJ, but lucky for the world, that didn’t happen.
A Boston native, Harrington began her career as a rock n’ roll singer, guitarist, and aspiring DJ. “Art and music was huge,” said Harrington, her friendly nature clearly evident. “My family was very musical.”
In the early 1970s when it was clear becoming a DJ was out, fate stepped in allowing the 22-year-old’s love of music, culture, American history, and the essence of the human spirit to ignite an exciting and passion-filled journey. Her rock band experience evolved into storytelling as an independent producer, director, and writer of documentaries and historical films. Harrington’s work is leaving its mark locally, nationally, and abroad, and she has no plans to stop any time soon.
Out of Syracuse University in the early 1980s with a Bachelor’s in Public Communications, Harrington was working as a script writer for an audio visual company when she was asked by a mutual friend at the “11th hour” to join Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers on the Warner Bros. Sire Records label after one of the two female singers was fired.
“Of course, I said yes, because why not, and I wanted to meet Jonathan,” said Harrington, her eyes bright with memories of the eccentric and highly talented singer and songwriter. “The audition consisted of hand clapping and a little singing, she recalled, and by the end of two weeks, it was a paid gig for a year, off and on.”
That year with the band turned into three years of creative life-sustaining music, good friends, and an experience that would help shape Harrington’s filmmaking future.
By the time Harrington left the band in 1983, she said she had validated her own sense of self in the music world. She experienced the chance to sing in a band with Richman – someone she admired enormously and who had a lot of fans. “To be associated with him was a real honor and boosted myself as a performer,” she said. “There were so few women at that time in music, and he was very nurturing to us and crafted songs around the dynamic of the three of us.”
Harrington’s time in Richman’s band also influenced how other people began to perceive her. “All of a sudden my profile elevated,” she said. The personal growth she gained from being in the band meant elevated courage for Harrington.
After the band, she began to take her journalist background, scriptwriting, and love of history and music more deeply into documentary and education pursuits. She began to market herself and her array of skills.
“I realized that if I wanted to have influence over my work,” said Harrington, “I needed to produce and direct to preserve the vision of my work.”
By the early 1990s, Harrington started joining associations, including Women in Film, and gained notable experience through her association with Boston’s Documentary Guild and WGBH where she served as a line producer and associate producer on various shows for PBS, including NOVA and Frontline. These shows received awards, including a Peabody and two national Emmy nominations. It was her work on one of NOVA’s documentaries that led her to meet and marry the love of her life, Andy Lockhart, a young Volcanologist, and become a Vancouver resident.
Harrington also worked on her own films during this time while simultaneously earning her Master’s in American Studies from the University of Massachusetts. She said this was hard but you just keep persevering, push through fear, and follow your passion even when it feels tough. “It’s important to find a work-life balance.”
Since Harrington is an avid American history buff, it was a joy for her to become immersed in local Boston culture, where she spent some time recording the annual Italian-American religious festivals. “History is very alive,” she said. “The neighborhood I lived in for 20 years was full of history.”
Her fascination with urban rituals led to a trilogy of documentaries, new friendships, and renewed inspiration.
Now a 22-year veteran of Vancouver, Harrington feels at home in Clark County. “I love Vancouver,” she said. “Good things can happen here. It has good bones.”
Over the years, Harrington has slowly been cheering on the arts community from the sidelines in Vancouver. One of the advisors for the Cultural, Arts and Heritage plan, Harrington said she shows her films here as much as she can. She said she feels the support in Vancouver and thinks “it’s great when there is a cross pollination of arts.”
Her recent works, which are historically rooted, include The Winding Stream – The Carter’s, The Cashes, and the Course of Country Music, the Grammy nominated Welcome to the Club – The Women of Rockabilly, which reflects her love of music. “The beauty of documentaries, she said, is that “it’s your own vision.”
Harrington reflected on the success of The Winding Stream, the powerful experience of talking with Johnny Cash, and also the 10 years it took to complete the project due to the time it took to generate enough financial backing. Released in 2014, the documentary was viewed in more than 80 theatres and received great reviews. “We flew to Nashville in August 2003 to meet Johnny Cash in his home after his wife, June had died in May.”
Harrington has also made history shows for OPB, including her recent 30-minute episode of “Oregon Experience” exploring Fort Vancouver, and is still active in various film communities. Her recent pilot episode of the digital series, The Musicianer, an Americana music-driven narrative project with a supernatural bent, had its debut at The Kiggins Theatre on Sunday, Jan. 27 to a full house. Her hope is that enough money can be generated to continue the series.
Harrington is still brimming with ideas. She has a new project in the works that focuses on David Greenberger an American artist, writer, radio commentator and friend from her Boston days known for his Duplex Planet series of zines, comic books, CDs, spoken word performances, and radio plays.
“Creating independent documentaries is a labor of love,” she said.
— Jackie Genis