Punk Rock Films

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.
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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:
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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.