Tuesday, February 3, 2009

5 High Points in Punk Rock on Film

Originally published at SpoutBlog:

It was 30 years ago this week that Sid Vicious rang the death knell for punk rock, overdosing on heroin on February 2nd while awaiting trial for the murder of girlfriend Nancy Spungen. So in honor of the spike-haired rebel who was the face (if not the sound) of punk, and whose chaotic life ended at the tender age of 21, I present five punk rock films that really rock.


Suburbia was released in 1983, and though Sid Vicious had flamed out along with punk’s heyday years before, America’s hardcore scene was in overdrive with bands like Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys reinventing the music by playing at the speed of light, pumping up the adrenaline from coast to coast (and causing this minor threat to later consider the Ramones as slowpoke as The Beatles.) Director Penelope Spheeris, best known for docs like “Decline of Western Civilization” and her later forays into sellout Hollywood, thrillingly applied the original punk DIY ethos to filmmaking, using guerrilla tactics and nonprofessionals to create a time capsule of L.A.’s underground scene. In other words, the film not only documents punk, it is punk – and a must-see for a young punk as much as the latest Bad Brains album was a must-hear. In fact, I must’ve seen this film about a group of runaways who form a punk family a dozen times during my anarchistic teenage years, never sober and usually with my own extended, Mohawk coiffed, leather-and-chain-wearing family. Indeed, the image of lead character Evan kicking at white walls like a trapped animal, futilely trying to fight his way out of society’s cage, often would be the last I’d see before passing out next to a spike-toed Doc.

“Repo Man”

Emilio Estevez has never been as good as he was in “Repo Man.” Appropriately released in that Orwellian year of 1984, Alex Cox’s surreal take on the world of mercenary repossession agents is every bit as bizarre as anything Terry Gilliam ever put onscreen. As punk rocker Otto, Estevez stoically faces losing his job, being dumped by his girlfriend, UFOs and government conspiracies – not to mention a quintessentially slimy Harry Dean Stanton as his mentor – all set to a soundtrack featuring everything from Iggy Pop to the Burning Sensations (whose ditty “Pablo Picasso” has some of the punkest lyrics ever written: “All the girls would turn the color of an avocado/ When he’d drive down the street in his El Dorado/ Though he was only five-foot-three girls could not resist his stare/ Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole – not like you”).

“Sid & Nancy”

I’ve already waxed rhapsodic about “Sid & Nancy” in my recent Criterion Collection essay at The House Next Door, but suffice to say that this true love story of the Sex Pistols’ bassist Sid Vicious and his junkie groupie-turned-girlfriend Nancy Spungen is anything but your typical tabloid biopic. Alex Cox’s 1986 film is nothing less than a masterful visual translation of the greatest punk rock story ever told. As with “Repo Man,” the director digs deep, discovering the surreal in the everyday while mining the humanity and even humor of the nihilist 70s. Songs by The Pogues and the late Clash front man Joe Strummer round out the soundtrack. And of course, Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb are equally unforgettable as the leads.

“Valley Girl”

Martha Coolidge’s 1983 film is basically “Romeo and Juliet” set in the San Fernando Valley with no sword fights, a happy ending and, most importantly, as Sparks would say, “music that you can dance to.” Nicolas Cage plays the punk rock, knight-in-shining-armor Randy to Valley Girl Julie (Deborah Foreman) with just the right mix of lovesickness and weirdness. Equally impressive is the soundtrack, with such classics as Josie Cotton’s “Johnny, Are You Queer Boy?” and songs by virtually every new wave band that mattered, from The Psychedelic Furs to Sparks to The Plimsouls. And as an added bonus, it contains one of the best pickup lines ever, “I like tacos, ‘78 Cabernet and my favorite color is magenta.” Totally awesome!

“This Is England”

My awestruck review pretty much sums up my passion for Shane Meadows’ semi-autobiographical 2007 film about growing up skinhead in the early 80s of Thatcher’s Britain. Defying every cliché with subtlety and specificity Meadows follows 12-year-old Shaun whose dad has been killed fighting in the Falklands War as he discovers a father figure in the leader of the local skins, taking tough love and hard lessons from his new Doc-stomping, Ben Sherman shirt clad family. In fact, “This Is England” is the perfect companion piece to Spheeris’ “Suburbia,” released nearly a quarter century before, proving that punk rock really didn’t die with Sid, and that it never lost its heartfelt cool.

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