Fire Island, located just off Long Island, New York, is a legendary part of gay history. It’s a place bound up in ideas of hedonism, sexual freedom/liberation and, some would say, debauchery, but perhaps more importantly its seen as a place where LGBT people have long been able to themselves in ways it was (particularly in the past) difficult to be anywhere else. It’s reached the status that for people who’ve never been there it’s almost mythic. Cherry Grove Stories is a documentary that helps to bring this spit of land back to earth, focussing on the Cherry Grove community and showing what it really was and is.
To do this it mines a surprisingly diverse array of archive footage – some shot at a time when what’s being shown (such as men in drag) was illegal – as well as interviews with a range of LGBT men and women. It includes a variety of ages to help put the changes into context, although the film is undoubtedly most interested in its older participants who can talk about what Cherry Grove and Fire Island was like before Stonewall in the 1950s and 1960s.
It’s an interesting look back into the past which covers both the good and the bad, from the sexual freedom to police crackdowns. It also touches on some of the best known figures from the Grove, the birth of the famed drag queen ‘Invasion Of The Pines’ and various other aspects. Cherry Grove Stories is sometimes funny – largely thanks to the choice of interviewees, some of whom have a background in flamboyant performance and so know how to spin a yarn – and never bores. Perhaps most fascinating how in the past the straight and the gay population lived side-by-side with the movie hinting at an interesting symbiosis between the money the gay men brought in and how many of the straight people helped protect the gay people.
If the film has a flaw it’s that it feel a little parochial, and assumes the audience has a familiarity with the subject that they may not have, to the point where if you don’t know what the Invasion or the Meat Rack are, it would be difficult to understand why the film thinks they’re so important. There’s also a slightly tendency to be so enamoured with its interviewees that it goes off on tangents and momentarily loses sight of what it’s doing. It’s never boring though and makes for an interesting watch.
Overall Verdict: Those who’ve been to Fire Island will undoubtedly find it fascinating, but those looking for a primer either on the Island or Cherry Grove itself, may find that the assumptions it makes about the viewers’ knowledge present a barrier.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac