Punk Rock Films

A Cheap Movie Holiday in Other People’s Misery: 40 Years of Brit Punk on Film (Part 2)

Sally Sedition, 1979: “My granny lives up there on the 12th floor and ‘alf the time the lift’s broken. It’s a travesty, that is.”

Text by Rick ouellette/Illustrations by Eric Bornstein

Never underestimate the symbolic value of the hated “tower blocks” of working-class London as rhetorical ammunition for punk rockers in their skirmish with the UK establishment of the late 1970s. On their second LP, This is the Modern World, the Jam posed under the same shadowing underpass as Sally did in the above drawing, with the same applied animus of inhumane council estates. This perceived cattling of the populace was immortalized in songs like the Clash’s “London’s Burning,” Chelsea’s “High-Rise Living” and XTC’s “Towers of London.”

In reality, not a ton of these early punks actually lived in these dreaded high rises, many coming from more outlying London districts or suburbs (the Jam hailed from Woking, 23 miles from the Charing Cross measuring spot). An exception was Clash guitarist Mick Jones, who indeed lived way up off the ground with his granny. The group made a point to be filmed looking out from an outdoor balcony down to the elevated Westway and the city beyond. This footage made it into Julien Temple’s 2007 posthumous docu-pic Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten. In that film, Jones is seen on the same balcony and says, “All you have to do is look out there to write a song. It’s all out there.” That “roar of the city” that Jones refers to can be absorbed by anyone who wants to experience and understand it, regardless of their origin. Joe Strummer himself was born in Ankara to a foreign-service family and went to a private boarding school for a while. But he absorbed the street and its varying forms of the human condition to be able to write about like few had done before.


By the time of the Sandinista! album, released in late 1980, the Clash’s critique of high-rise public housing had advanced from rabble-rousing phrases to more of a news editorial bent. “You can’t live in a home which should not have been built/By the bourgeois clerks who bear no guilt” Mick Jones sings The song’s somber eloquence is reflected in the montage of this fan-made video, which includes the band-on-balcony footage mentioned above.

The creative impulse to strike out in anger and protest, an indignation often leavened with raffish humor, is a British tradition dating at least as far back as Jonathan Swift (Johnny Rotten has been likened to a modern-day Artful Dodger). In 1979, Julien Temple showed his debt to radical French director Jean (Zero for Conduct) Vigo when he made the 19-minute short subject Punk Can Take It. He recruited the conversant second-line punk outfit the UK Subs (along with a couple of carryover characters from his filming of The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle) in creating a cheeky parody of Humphrey Jennings’ acclaimed 1940 newsreel London Can Take It. The wartime documentarian made several skillful morale-boosting works, showing the English population banding together in the face of Luftwaffe attacks. In Temple’s version, the band (and the safety-pinned kids in general) have to withstand the bombardment of an uptight establishment that would suppress and/or co-opt them. The pithy narrator mimics the authoritative tone of Jenning’s source material. He assures us that the big noises we here “are not Hollywood sound effects” as we join the Subs regaling a sweaty, pogo-happy club crowd with such two-minute buzzsaw bursts as “Stranglehold” and “I Live in a Car.”

Sally notes the prominent role played by “poxy politicians” in the attempted demonization of punk, rivaling the role of the tabloid newspapers as they chronicled the “foul-mouthed yobs” and their “rock cult filth.” Notable among these officials was then city-councilor Bernard Brook-Partridge, seen below.

Punk Can Take It hints at a punk purism, dispensing with hippies and even neo-Mods with cartoonish violence. But the new scene was diverse even in the early years of 1976-77. The Jam wore sharp suits and slashed away at their Rickenbackers, evoking mid-Sixties Who and Kinks, but with an extra dose of sneering. In the 2015 doc, The Jam: About the Young Idea, director Bob Smeaton (who also helmed Festival Express) shows how kids from the outlying “satellite towns” embraced an image that was less confrontational than the Kings Road early adopters, who were often marks for bobbies and skinheads. Although the songs of frontman Paul Weller were more thoughtful than many others, the delivery system was just as fierce, as seen in this 1980 version of “Private Hell” from the German music show Rockpalast (the full show is available as a bonus disc on some DVD editions of About the Young Idea).

Most Brit punk documentaries focus on a few of the same elements that gave rise to this new contentious sound that rattled the status quo in Old Blighty. Primary causes were the nation’s social and economic upheavals of the mid-70s, the blandness of mainstream culture and the perceived pomposity of arena-rock groups. Bands like Yes and Pink Floyd came in for a right bashing. As Sally tells it: “Before punk, it was all prog-rock tossers and 20-minute guitar solos. That’s boring, innit?”

Don Letts, who had made the seminal Punk Rock Movie in 1978 (discussed in Part One), joined up with Mick Jones after he left the Clash, forming Big Audio Dynamite. Letts latter returned to film making and produced the excellent wide-view documentary Punk: Attitude in 2005. Instead of slagging off anything that came before the Pistols, Letts see the outrage of the Class of ’77 as part of an evolving struggle against complacency—even a “spiritual thing within,” as Pistols’ guitarist Steve Jones puts it. Here, the survey of that attitude stretches back to Woody Guthrie, the Fifties’ rock & roll pioneers and even the war-protesting hippies that the punks were aligned against. Letts has directed several other music docs as well: for the purposes of this post, the 2000 Clash profile Westway to the World is also recommended.

In the 21st century, the punk spirit can be re-lived and hopefully spark new inspiration in younger generations through the flock on related films that have been released in the last two decades. Sometimes they are not documentaries: maybe the two best cinematic depictions of the vibrant Manchester is the brilliant feature film Control (directed by Anton Corbijn, 2007) about the life and tragic death of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis and the wildly entertaining 24-Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom, 2002) starring Steve Coogan as the city’s punk-scene impresario Tony Wilson.

Among the newer notable docs is Don’t You Wish We Were Dead, the alternately hilarious and sobering profile of the UK’s irreverent trailblazers, and The Slits: Here to be Heard about the fearless forerunners of riot girl bands. Meanwhile, Julien Temple has gone on to become a virtual Sex Pistols documentary cottage industry. He filmed their 2007 concerts in London to mark the 30th anniversary of their classic Never Mind the Bollocks album. Their pariah status long behind them, they came across like modern English folk heroes, playing their nuts off for a mult-racial and multi-generational crowd for whom the lads’ “God Save the Queen” is now an “alternate national anthem.” Another recent Temple production, Christmas With the Sex Pistols (2013), is even better. Combining his old footage with new interviews with the band and attendees, Temple creates a heartwarming (yes, really) remembrance of the band’s secret holiday party that they threw for the children of striking firefighters on 12/25/1977. Naturally, the kids have no problem getting into the anarchic frame of mind, covering Johnny Rotten’s head in frosted cake, mid-performance.


From the 1980 film “Rude Boy,” the Clash front-line (from l to r, Paul Simonon, Joe Strummer and Mick Jones) are seen performing at a Rock Against Racism concert in London’s Victoria Park. The offending tower blocks loom in the background.

The punks’ visceral suspicion towards the concept of public high-rise housing came to a horrifying realization in June 2017 when the 24-story Grenfell Tower in West London erupted into a shocking conflagration that killed 72 people. The shoddy, cut-rate cladding and lax attitudes towards safety regulations and upkeep were major contributing factors to how a simple fridge fire quickly engulfed the entire building. The rhetorical aggression of punk rock pales in comparison to the “passive violence of civilized life” mentioned by the narrator of Punk Can Take It.


The Grenfell Tower inferno, June 14 of 2007.

Few rock songwriters would have understood this better than Joe Strummer, who died suddenly from a congenital heart condition in December of 2002. He and Mick Jones wrote a song for the Clash’s first album called “London’s Burning”. Naturally, it was not a call for mass arson—after all, London was burning with “boredom”—but instead was one of many songs coming from the UK at that time calling for a unity among kids to combat the de-personalizing nature of modern society. Joe, lost late at night in a housing project sings, “The wind howls through the empty blocks looking for a home/I run through the empty stone because I’m all alone.”

In Julien Temple 2007 Strummer doc The Future is Unwritten, the cinematic auteur of British punk, used a repeated motif of having groups of people (bandmates, friends, celebrity fans) sitting around bonfires sharing their stories of Joe and lauding his sense of globalism and social justice. One can only imagine Strummer’s reaction to today’s political climate of nationalism, bigoty, authoritarian rule and the whole Brexit folly. But no matter what the current conditions, it’s always best to remember his parting words from an old taped interview: “You can change anything you want to. People are out there doing bad things to each other because they’ve been de-humanized. It’s time to take humanity back to the center of the ring.”

You can check out the excerpt of my book “Rock Docs: A fifty-Year Cinematic Jorney” at http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html or by clicking on the book cover image above. If interested in purchasing, you can contact me directly for a special offer and free shipping! Thanks, Rick.
rick.ouellette@verizon.net

A Cheap Movie Holiday in Other People’s Misery: A Punter’s Guide to 40 Years of Brit Punk on Film, Part 1

Illustration by Eric Bornstein

In June of 1977, much of Great Britain was celebrating the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, who had ascended to the throne in 1952. At the same time, the punk rock uprising—which had been a disruptive presence in English society since the previous year—was reaching the apex of its notoriety. The Sex Pistols were certifiable public enemies by that time. They spent Jubilee Night on a hired Thames riverboat, sailing past the Houses of Parliament and railing against what they saw as an artificial figurehead looming over a fractured society and a declining economy. When the boat docked after this open-air shindig, the police were waiting…

Almost as soon as bands stared forming and a scene coalescing, Punk was being filmed. On the riverboat that night, camera in hand, was Julien Temple. While at university he became enamored of the French anarchist filmmaker Jean Vigo and in 1976 befriended the Pistols. Also on the scene in these days, with a newly purchased Super 8mm camera, was Don Letts, the dreadlocked DJ at London’s Roxy club. He filmed many bands during the famous 100-day period in early ’77 when the Roxy was an all-punk venue. This footage included performances by the Pistols, X-Ray Spex, Billy Idol and Generation X, the Clash, Subway Sect, the Slits and also American acts Johnny Thunders and Wayne County. He edited together his best clips of bands and fans at the Roxy as well as on the seminal White Riot Tour and released the endearingly primitive “Punk Rock Movie” in 1978.

The film ends with an electrifying 5-song clip of the Sex Pistols playing at The Screen on the Green in April ’77, their first performance with Sid Vicious. It’s an invaluable depiction of a revolutionary band as yet unburdened by their own infamy or by the Machiavellian manipulations of manager Malcolm McLaren.

Around the same time, a fledgling German filmmaker named Wolfgang Buld set out for London and shot many of the same bands as well as others like the Jam, the Adverts and Chelsea. Buld also paid homage to the first-column punk followers in several scenes, and for contrast ventured into a club chock full of conservative Teddy Boys (1st Ted: “One of them (punks), he had a dog collar on. There’s nothing good about that, is there?” 2nd TED: “That’s why we give them a good hiding every time we see ‘em.”) Buld also captured some bands playing live in their practice spaces, most notably X-Ray Spex and their dynamic singer Poly Styrene.


X-Ray Spex singer Poly Styrene in a still from “Punk in London”

The resulting “Punk in London” (like “Punk Rock Movie”) closes with an extended sequence of a top-line punk outfit. The Clash rip thru several of their politically-charged numbers on a spacious well-lit hall in Munich, making this one of the better filmed documents of the group’s early years. Both these movies show punk in straight-up mostly cinema verite form. It was a homegrown protest calling out Britain’s faded postwar promise and a raucous reaction against a stale pop music scene.


The Clash, “Garageland” Live in Munich 1977

Punk’s real Days of Rage started December 1st, 1976, when the Pistols where hastily invited to appear on the early-evening “Today Show” when the guys in Queen cancelled. A drunk and condescending host named Bill Grundy questioned the equally soused group and four members of their Bromley Contingent fan group. When one of them, future star Siouxsie Sioux, gets propositioned by Grundy, it’s more than guitarist Steve Jones is willing to take.


Forty-thousand pounds gone “Down the boozer”: The Grundy affair gets hashed out in Julien Temple’s 2000 doc “The Filth and the Fury

The British tabloids went off their nut. The Pistols had just released “Anarchy in the UK” their Molotov cocktail of a debut single and the uproar that followed the “Today” broadcast instantly gained them a national infamy. Glen Matlock, the band’s bassist and songwriting contributor, was soon after replaced by the less talented but more volatile Sid Vicious, born John Beverly and a friend of Rotten’s. This fit well into the game plan of the Pistols’ rakish manager, Malcolm McLaren, who wanted to exploit this growing sensationalism for maximum shock effect and easy money. It worked only too well. By the spring of ’77, Sex Pistol gigs were getting banned in several cities and anxious record companies were signing and then quickly dropping them amid the general moral panic. Their status as media Public Enemies was no joke: both Johnny Rotten and drummer Paul Cook were viciously attacked by London street thugs. What was overshadowed in all this was that the band’s “God Save the Queen” single was a true cultural turning point in UK history.


The semi-fictional propaganda hodgepodge that was “The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle” was released in 1980 as some sort of twisted Malcolm McLaren testament. Rotten had long left the band and despised the idea of it but the movie (directed, in a sense, by Julien Temple) had its moments, including a couple of nice bits of animation.

Although vilified by the press and misunderstood by large portions of slightly older rock fans, punk did find an early ally of sorts in the person of left-of-center artist/designer/director Derek Jarman. His cult film “Jubilee” was shot in ’77 and released a year later. He used punk singers and personalities like Toyah Wilcox, Jordan, Adam Ant and the Slits alongside players who were more identified with Jarman’s Warholian London art clique.

The film was a dystopian fantasy where Queen Elizabeth I, curious to see what the future holds for her country, is transported by her in-house sorcerer to an England where a social breakdown has left a blighted urban landscape where fascist police battle politically radicalized punk gangs.

At the gang’s dockside they work up militant manifestos but also aspire to be pop stars despite a global media machine as represented by an all-powerful impresario, the cackling Borgia Ginz. “Jubilee” was didactic arthouse fare that was not widely-loved when it came out in 1978. Many punk rockers were pissed off at the film’s implicit idea that they were callous and violent by default, booing at the premiere at a scene of one of the impresario’s hangers-on being tied to a lamppost with barbed wire.


Just another day in the dystopic Docklands of “Jubilee”

Today, Jarman’s movie looks more astute, pre-figuring the divisive Thatcher years and the modern media-industrial complex that marginalizes true rebellion by feeding the general public an “endless movie.” Speaking of which, the establishment got into the game by 1980, most notably with “Breaking Glass.” The script seemed to emanate from the boardroom instead of the street, although the sole credited writer-director was the BBC-trained journeyman Brian Gibson.

It starred the strident vocalist Hazel O’Connor playing a singer whose rise to messianic status defies both logic and musical greatness. Even the solid presence of Phil Daniels as her original manager/love interest doesn’t help much (Gibson, to his credit, would gone on to make two much better fiction films of real iconic female singers: “What’s Love Got to Do With It” and “The Josephine Baker Story”). The year before, Daniels had starred in Franc Rodman’s brilliant screen adaptation of the Who’s rock opera “Quadrophenia.” The film was embraced by the punk community and showed in a way that this new cultural uprising was also part of a longer continuum and would eventually be looked on with the same sort of nostalgia it was then detesting. But more of that in Part Two.

You can check out the excerpt of my book “Rock Docs: A fifty-Year Cinematic Jorney” at http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html or by clicking on the book cover image above. If interested in purchasing, you can contact me directly for a special offer and free shipping! Thanks, Rick.
rick.ouellette@verizon.net

Ralph Bakshi’s “American Pop”: Where Musical Dreams Go to Die

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Ralph Bakshi, the iconoclastic animator/director who is still probably best known for the 1972 film “Fritz the Cat,” has certainly had a curious career. Born in 1938 to Jewish parents living in Haifa, Israel, his family emigrated to avoid World War II and Ralph grew up on the gritty Brooklyn streets of mid-century New York. A keen interest in illustration and cartooning developed at Manhattan’s School of Industrial Art (now the High School of Art and Design) lifted him above his self-admitted feckless teenage years, but the streetwise demeanor seemed to stick with him. After breaking into the business with the Terrytoons animation studio (creators of Deputy Dawg and Mighty Mouse), Bakshi worked for years to develop his own projects and when he did it met with instant success. “Fritz the Cat”, based on the R. Crumb’s racy comic strip, kickstarted the modern movement of adult animation, with a visual look of stylized realism and blatant themes of sex, violence and drug use that earned Fritz an X rating, which in turn only helped to boost the film’s profile. After that, though, Bakshi seemed content to coast on that initial hit, either re-treading the urban-jungle setting (Heavy Traffic) or indulging in the burgeoning animated fantasy genre (“Lord of the Rings” and “Wizards”). But with 1981’s “American Pop”, where he took on the far-reaching subject of American popular music, he created his biggest fantasy yet: that he knew anything about the topic he was making a movie of.

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“Hey man, what is this shit? You’re pulling Houdini and she’s pulling freak-out city!” “American Pop’s” hapless hippie band get saddled with a lot of the film’s tin-eared dialogue.

During the film’s 96 gear-grinding minutes, Bakshi traces the history of this vast genre from mediocre vaudeville performers in the 1910s to a coked-up poseur doing a hatchet job with Heart’s “Crazy on You” to an arena crowd at the end of the Seventies. Authenticity leaks through only occasionally, and inadvertently. The director uses the potentially interesting idea of tracing this musical chronology through four generations of one family. However, hardly anyone in this clan seems to have much talent, having more success as hoodlums and dope pushers than they do as songsmiths. The patriarch starts out as a Russian emigrant kid in New York City who somehow transforms into a Sicilian gangster—he doesn’t have time to learn an instrument but does hang out in nightclubs. He marries a run-of-the mill chanteuse whose affection for home-delivered pretzels leads to tragedy (don’t ask). But this is not before they produce a son who is supposedly a “genius” but never seems to advance past the piano lounge in his daddy’s restaurant. He in turn has a son named Tony (still with me?) who, despite being a dim-witted layabout, somehow manages to compose the classic songs “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” Maybe Bakshi figures that no one will care very much that Tony’s accidental inspiration in late-60s Haight-Ashbury comes several years after some guy named Bob Dylan wrote those songs in “real life.”

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I’m sorry, pal, but could you move? We’re trying to shoot the “Physical Graffiti” album cover.

Actually, Tony is almost likable in his unwavering ineptitude. He chafes against the conformity of post-war suburban America and, dressed like James Dean and talking like Brando on sedatives, he goes cross-country, unfortunately impregnating a corn-pone Kansas girl along the way (this progeny turns out to be the “Crazy on You” guy). In a brief lyrical moment, Tony jumps a train and performs a harmonica duet with a black hobo, a rare nod that Bakshi makes to pop music’s great indebtedness to African-American culture. Later, Tony finds himself fed up with the latest in a long line of dishwashing jobs and tells his boss he’s going to keep “moving out West” before being reminded that he’s already in San Francisco. That this applehead is writing a masterpiece like “Hard Rain” only moments later is perverse proof that America is indeed the land of opportunity that his grandfather fled czarist Russia to find.

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“American Pop” is based on such a lazy, checklist aesthetic that the only reason I can think of for its initial 1981 box-office success is a long-lingering “oh wow” factor left over from the Sixties. Just let it happen, man! Bakshi’s visual style still had a certain audience-drawing flair, though many elements (like the clunky “punk” montage see above) come across as third-hand information that should be laughable to any real rock fan. Pop history does matter so if you’re going to make a whole film about it, try to get within a mile or two of credibility. Instead, we’re asked to go along with the notion that Jimi Hendrix would open for the squabbling Frisco flunkies that are the movie’s excuse for a hippie band. (OK, Ralph, I heard you got a good price on the rights to use “Purple Haze” but really!). I get the feeling, though, that many of the true-blue fans I mentioned would have mentally checked out by then, long before “American Pop’s” absurdly anticlimactic, fist-raising concert finale. That would leave plenty of time to ponder just why Bakshi felt he needed to foist this clueless cartoon on the world.

My latest book, Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey, is available now in paperback from Amazon and other online retailers, including from my author page at BookLocker.com. Click on this link for a 30-page excerpt:
http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html

Reel and Rock Film of the Year: We Are the Best!

we are the best poster

There’s nothing especially profound about this droll and sweetly rebellious indie crowd-pleaser from Swedish director Lukas Moodysson. But in its acute attention to the details of its adolescent outsiders reaching for their identity, “We are the Best” is a rock & roll coming-of-age fable of the first order. Two 13 year-old girls set out to prove that “punk is not dead” to the Olivia Newton-John wannabes in their Stockholm middle school, circa 1982. Best friends Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Klara (Mira Grosin) find their days alternating between boredom and the casual indignities passed down to teenage non-conformists. On a whim, they start a group, if only to take away practice time from Iron Fist, the doofus metal band of condescending older boys at the local youth center. Despite their unfamiliarity with the drum set and bass guitar left in the corner of the practice space, they start to bash out a song called “Hate the Sport” that rails against two of mankind’s greatest evils: the threat of nuclear annihilation and gym class. Sample lyric: “People die and scream/But all you care about is your soccer team”.

we are the best practice

“The world is a morgue/But you’re too busy watching Bjorn Borg!!” Swedish punk comes of age.

Convinced of their impending greatness but aware of certain musical limitations, they shrewdly recruit Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne) an ignored girl from a Christian family who is a talented classical guitarist. In exchange for music tips, Bobo and Klara assure her that she’ll never have two better friends. The three lead characters are pitch-perfect in their roles if not always in their music. Between their first meet-up and the culminating trip with Iron Fist and two youth-center staffers to a “Santa Rock” event in a redneck provincial town (in time-honored punk fashion, the girls’ performance starts a riot within a minute), their acting captures early teenhood’s dizzying mix of insecurity and tenacity.

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“We’re not a makeup band.” Bobo, Hedvig and Klara hold a practice-room confab.

Moodysson blends in all the elements without overselling a single one: the rigid delineation of musical tastes, the nervous phone calls to boys, the junk food binges, the early feeling-out of political principles. As the trailer suggests it is a film for 13 year-olds: past, present and future. That’s casting the net pretty wide but it is amazing how that age, which seems like such a trial at the time, always retains a romantic glow in retrospect. I saw it with my son Ryan (then 13 himself) during its brief U.S. theatrical run last summer. He gave it 4 out of 5 stars, despite noting that it’s no “Lord of the Rings.” Hopefully, this modest gem will find a much wider audience streaming and on DVD and take a deserved spot in the cannon of great fictional rock movies.

According to a self-imposed deadline, my next book “Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey” is due to be released in summer 2015.