Sarah McLachlan’s pioneering Lilith Fair festival takes centre stage in new documentary
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Sarah McLachlan’s pioneering Lilith Fair festival takes centre stage in new documentary

An underrated, influential ’90s festival is getting the recognition it deserves in the form of a feature-length documentary.

Lilith Fair will tell the story of Sarah McLachlan’s all-female traveling music festival, which was a pioneering attempt to combat sexism in the live music industry.

The documentary, directed by emerging Canadian filmmaker Ally Pankiw and co-produced by Dan Levy and Christina Piovesan, will feature interviews with some of the festival’s biggest stars, including Sheryl Crow, Erykah Badu, The Indigo Girls and Brandi Carlile, as well as contemporary artists like Olivia Rodrigo, who bear witness to the festival’s tradition.

Running from 1997 to 1999, Lilith Fair was founded to uplift and build community among female artists, and helped launch future stars like Missy Elliott, Nelly Furtado, Tegan, and Sara and The Chicks. McLachlan was inspired to start the festival after hearing from organizers that audiences didn’t want to see many women on the lineups.

In 2010, she revived the festival, bringing back original performers and inviting new ones like Lights and Serena Ryder.

The documentary is based on music journalist Jessica Hopper’s 2019 account of the festival, co-written with Sasha Geffen and Jenn Pelly. In it, Hopper chronicles the transformative ’90s for female songwriters on the charts, when McLachlan, Crow, Alanis Morissette, Lisa Loeb and others were finding success but still faced barriers related to sexism in the industry.

Oral history also emphasizes that progress is not absolute: even when Lilith Fair proved that festivals could sell out when only women were on the bill, the festival was stereotyped as too feminine and frivolous. And as pop music entered the 2000s, many women were marginalized, and Lilith’s successes were forgotten or ignored. Even today, 25 years after Lilith Fair, festival lineups are still dominated by men, as the Instagram account Book More Women points out.

The documentary, executive produced by Hopper, will reflect on those lessons and legacy, drawing from more than 600 hours of archival footage. “I want to give a deeper understanding of the festival to young musicians, nonbinary and queer people, and music fans who first picked up a guitar or concert tickets because Lilith showed them how to do it,” Pankiw says.

The McLachlan festival film comes as the Canadian singer-songwriter looks back at her own career path as she tours to celebrate the 30th anniversary of her album Towards ecstasy. She will also be inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame this fall.

Lilith Fair is set to be released in theaters in Canada, distributed by Elevation Pictures, and will premiere in CBC in the 2025-26 season.