Why does it seem next to impossible to get punk right in movies? It is not just a Hollywood thing, although it is definitely exacerbated in Hollywood films more so than in independents. However, even independent—or relatively independent—pictures just can’t seem to capture punk in anything less than laughable terms. I recently put myself through the miserable experience of watching CBGB, a film that captures (I use this term in the most loose context imaginable) the first few years of the club’s existence, and some of the legendary acts that were discovered within its walls. The film can be seen as a textbook of every mistake you could possibly make in attempting to produce a film about punk rock. Watching the film made me think about the entire subgenre of punk films, which is littered with some of the most classic pieces of cult cinema you can imagine and alongside some of the most clichéd nonsense captured on film. So here you are my short list of the best and worst punk films (purposely avoiding documentaries, which should warrant an entire article on their own).
Despite wishing that CBGB wasthe brainchild of a clueless studio executive, I am fairly certain this was probably a Randall Miller passion project. If you are familiar with Miller, and you probably aren’t, he is the man who brought you classic films like The Sixth Man and Houseguest starring Sinbad; so why wouldn’t he be the one to make a film about punk, right? What is exactly so bad about the film? Simple. It lacks a coherent plot and believable/enthusiastic actors, it is loosely held together with an arbitrary comic book theme, and the script is unbearable. Featuring lines like: “I bet they stink”, “Hey man, you’re gunna wanna crank it” [said with absolutely no conviction], and my personal favorite, “What part of Cleveland are you from? Cleveland, Germany” [asked of the Dead Boys in response to their bafflement over the existence of bagels], it is amazing that any actor made it through their lines without laughing. Choice moments the film offers include: a great scene where the sound guy, ‘Taxi’, (in order to avoid stepping in dog shit and having fleas biting his ankles) buys a pair of combat boots (an act that the film portrays as some kind of scene of enlightenment); the Ramones playing “I Wanna Live” (a song they released in 1987) during their CBGB tryouts (which would have taken place sometime in 1974); numerous shots of stickers from contemporary bands (easily avoidable); and some of the worst pantomime instrument playing you’ll ever see (my favorite being Evan Alex Cole’s, who played Richard Hell, expressive bass fills). It is worth noting that the film did struggle with licensing issues, and this is why the Ramones are unable to play songs that were historically accurate. While this addresses why this may have occurred, it is far from justifying the choice. To be fair, there are a few things that the movie did well. Alan Rickman does a fine job with a horrendous script, and what seems like a director with a complete disregard for actor direction. The film leaves me torn. Should I recommend it and progress the immortal shaming the director will receive or just warn people to stay as far away as possible. I’m leaning towards the latter.
Sid and Nancy
Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy is a remarkably different kind of film than his masterpiece Repo Man. Broken down, Sid and Nancy is essentially a 112-minute depiction of the heroin-induced deterioration of the two titular characters. The film is painful in numerous ways. The painful portrayal of drug use often becomes both the source of praise and disgust. The supporters see the film as a tragic story of two lovers battling an awful addiction; the critics see only a glorification of heroin loosely disguised as a punk biopic. Unlike some of these other films, Sid and Nancy is a film that is, however, worth watching, and in fact, the large majority of people that I know do find value in it. I can admit Gary Oldman is, like always, amazing in the role. He does his normal disappearing act into the role, despite the rather one-dimensional script he was given. Unfortunate for us, this disappearing act fails to live up to the unintentional comedic genius of his performance in Tiptoes, leaving us with a well-performed but nevertheless empty character. For Nancy, Chloe Webb’s performance is, by all accountable means, excellent. When I say “all accountable means,” I am only referring to her ability capture one of the most aggravating performances I have ever witnessed, in a believable form. Authenticity is the character’s sole value, outweighed by what can only be described as one of the most maddening character creations in film history. To be honest, I have never been able sit through the entire movie more than once, and I am fairly certain that, played on repeat, the film could be one of the most veritable methods of torture available. Nancy’s voice is enough to drive a person insane. While I do dislike the film, my distaste is not a result of the story, or the alleged drug glorification. My aversion rest solely on my distaste for Nancy; Webb’s portrayal will incessantly haunt me.
SLC Punk is a film that has managed to charm its way into the hearts of many punks, despite essentially knowing nothing about punk. I’ll cede to the fact that there are some actually funny moments in the film, and not just in a laughing-at-it sort of way. My main problem with the film is that it pretends to be an expert on the makings of punk, yet ultimately rests on the notion that the punkest thing to do is to get a job in the corporate world, with some vague notion of taking it down from inside. The only thing the ending of this film has accomplished, comes in the form of office “punks” nationwide believing that they are “taking down the man from the inside.” Just face it, you aren’t doing shit, and I blame SLC Punk for making you think you are.
Dishonorable Mentions: Pot Zombies, Wassup Rockers, and SubUrbia (not to be confused with Suburbia, SubUrbia is the awfully monotonous Richard Linklater/Giovanni Ribisi vehicle).
“Ordinary fucking people,” if you recognize this line, you know exactly why at the top of my list, a film I consider to be the best punk film of all time, is Alex Cox’s 1984 cult classic Repo Man. I can’t imagine how this film got made, but thanks to some minor miracle or a really well-timed inheritance, it did.Repo Man is one part science fiction, one part crime thriller, one part comedy, and one part absolute madness. It is a near perfect film; even garnishing distribution under the prestigious Criterion Collection. The film achieves its greatness through its manipulation of different genre conventions, subjecting its own strange form of humor throughout. Narrowing the film down to a single ideological statement would be next to impossible. That being said, I think the reason the film has resonated so loud within the punk community is in its apprehension towards anything ordinary. Ordinary people, ordinary jobs, and even ordinary filmmaking are all critiqued under Cox’s vision and the characters he created. As we all know “the life of a repo man is always intense.” If nothing else, who couldn’t love a film that features the great Harry Dean Stanton screaming: “Gypsy dildo punks!”
Standing in at a very close second is Penelope Spheeris’ Suburbia. Penelope Spheeris, shortly after making her mark with the punk documentary The Decline of Western Civilization and long before achieving mainstream success with Wayne’s World, got nearly everything right with Suburbia. Suburbia features some great tacky dialogue (“Where’s the war?” “Up your ass.”), performances by DI, TSOL, and the Vandals, and a cast formed almost entirely of actual punks. And yes, before the thought crosses your mind, Flea was in the film. However, the film was produced the same year that Red Hot Chili Peppers formed, so at the time, he was as unknown to the general public as the rest of the cast. Suburbia differs greatly from Repo Man in its tone and approach. Where Repo Man makes no attempt to fashion anything less than pure outlandishness, Suburbia does make an honest attempt at the typical Hollywood narrative. What becomes entertaining about the filmare the ways that it fails to do so. It is possible that film’s failure at normality is what makes it feel so authentically punk. There is a real heart to the film. It may be corny, and even overly sentimental at times, but it’s pure fun; a must see for anyone who spent their formative years attending punk shows.
Rock ‘n’ Roll High School
Of course, you can’t mention punk movies without talking about Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. Produced by infamous B-Movie legend, Roger Corman, the film represents everything remarkable about 80s cinema. Sure, the 1980s mark the start of one of the most impressive eras of independent cinema (Spike Lee, the Coen brothers, etc.), but it also produced the retro-trash we all love in films like Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, Killer Klowns from Outer Space,and The Toxic Avenger among countless others. In many ways this film is bad. But it is the kind of bad movie that we all love; a film that seems to revel in its appealing cheese factor. A hybrid between 60s teen films, musicals, and absurdist comedy, Rock ‘n’ Roll High is every Ramones fan’s dream. Where Sid and Nancy fails at trying to humanize the reality of a punk’s life, Rock ‘n’ High School succeeds by paying realism no mind. What is left is sheer entertainment filled with life-sized rats, a great soundtrack lush with Ramones tracks and best of all the Ramones are genuinely funny in their mocking caricatures, as pizza-crazed punk rockers.
Desperate Living aka Punk Story
I admit it, technically speaking Desperate Living is not a true punk film, in that its story is not really centered around punk characters or culture. I chose to include it because John Waters may as well be crowned the king of punk cinema. Despite his films not necessarily being about punk rock, there is something in his being, something that lives through his films that is undeniably punk. His complete disgust with normal living and his admiration for misfits or the undesirable create a beautiful brilliance, from what can only be otherwise described as pure degradation and sleaze. Desperate Living is not my favorite Waters picture, but it is the one that has stuck with me the longest. It remains one of the most disturbing and uncomfortable pictures I have ever sat through, but I loved every minute of the filth.
Honorable Mentions: Return of the Living Dead, Class of Nuke ’Em High, and Thrashin’.
What We Do is Secret
Finally, there is What We Do is Secret. I struggle to place this on either the “worst of” or “best of” list, because honestly, it really isn’t that bad of a movie. The Germs were probably the first punk band that I was obsessed with: I carried proud my copy of Lexicon Devil throughout the halls of middle school as if it were akin to War and Peace, or some other literary masterpiece that may impress others. You would assume that I would be predestined to detest a film that was trying to capitalize on something I hold close, but I can’t say that I did or do. The film has its issues: the most glaring of which is the narrative voice. There are major narrative switches in the film; from pseudo-documentary to straightforward classical narrative about a quarter away through the film, and then further confusing the narrative structure by including reporting characters (Claude Bessy and Rodney on the Roq) who at times seem present solely to drive the plot forward. Aside from the peculiar narrative structure, some people have taken issue with the film’s take on historical accuracy. While it gets a lot of the key events right, it also takes strange liberties at times. For me, the things that the film gets right largely outweigh the more arbitrary offences to history (i.e. the year Don Bolles joined and the Riot at The Whiskey). Most importantly, I feel the film depicts the hostile opinion of homosexuality in the late 70s/early 80s LA punk scene rather well, neither rewriting history through outing Darby, nor exploiting the homophobia to excess. It simply exists as a fact of the scene, and the interpretation is left to the viewer. It must also be noted that, love him or hate him, Shane West’s performance is exceptional and largely carries the some of the less consistent performances. What remains most impressive about the film to me is the way that live music is presented. Rather than, like most music biopics (See: CBGB), pantomime performances laid over studio album recordings, the film actually re-recorded all of the performances to obtain a live feel. The technique really adds to the overall authenticity of the film. What We Do is Secret is far from a perfect film, and I am not even sure I can call it a good film, but there are aspects contained within it that are more than deserving of your time. Watch it with an open mind and you may take something of value from it.