Punk Attitude

The Seattle International Film Festival is going on at the moment and there’s an abundance of interesting movies coming up. Nik and I have a hit or miss history with the SIFF. Some years we make a real effort and see a lot of movies, while in others we’re too caught up in other things to see anything. Last night we went to our first SIFF movie of the year, a film called Punk: Attitude. It was about perfect for me.

Punk: Attitude is a film by Don Letts. You may know Don as the former DJ of the famed Roxy club in London back in the day, or the soundman for the Clash, or the maker of the Punk Rock Movie. If you don’t know his work, suffice to say that he was at ground zero of the British punk explosion and so has the right cred to make this film.

The movie is a documentary that traces the punk attitude through the years. Naturally enough, it also supplies a potted history of punk rock. What makes it really work is that Letts has the participants speak for themselves. This is not a documentary done in the omniscient narrator style. The story is carried forward by interview snippets from a wide range of scenesters, not all of whom were musicians either. The lineup is pretty impressive. Letts interviewed members of the Velvet Underground, MC5, New York Dolls, Ramones, Dictators, the Clash, the Damned, the Buzzcocks, X-Ray Spex, the Slits, Siousxie and the Banshees, Black Flag, Circle Jerks, the Screamers, the Contortions, Dead Kennedys, Sonic Youth, and many more. He also interviewed the creators of Punk Magazine, filmmakers Jim Jarmusch and Mary Haddon, photographer Bob Gruen, and other people from the various punk scenes. And it’s not stock footage but new interviews done for this film. I liked that because the participants were reflective on what they had done and experienced and many were quite articulate. The shame of it is that so many people weren’t alive to be involved. We’ll never see an old Johnny Thunders, Stiv Bators, or Joe Strummer look back on what they had done and that’s too bad.

The first half of the film tells a story familiar to music fans. It follows punk from precursors like the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, the MC 5, and the New York Dolls through to the rise and fall of the New York and London scenes in the 74-79 era. If you’ve read the book Please Kill Me, this section of the film is like the live version of the book but with equal time given to the English scene. That narrative up through the rise of hardcore works fairly well in chronological fashion, but after that punk splinters and you it’s no longer an easy story to tell.

After this point the film can’t help but jump around and it sometimes goes from 1980 to 1992 and back again in five minutes. It covers thing like the New York No Wave bands and touches on scenes in DC and CA. It’s here that the limitations of the two hour movie come into play though, because there’s simply too much to talk about. Hardcore is talked about but the band that coined the phrase, DOA, is not. The section on DC talks about straight edge and Minor Threat and then catapults forward to Fugazi, skipping nearly the entirety of the important DC hardcore scene. Several people, notably Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth, talk about how music historians often skip from the early 80s to the rise of Nirvana and grunge as if nothing happened in between. The film, however, doesn’t really follow up on this and that’s too bad. There’s no mention at all of hugely influential 80s bands like Mission of Burma, Husker Du, and the Minutemen. The entire anarcho-punk scene in England (Crass, Subhumans, Conflict, Flux of Pink Indians) is ignored in its entirety. Later, when talking about the commercialization of punk, someone comments that bands like Rancid “came from nowhere.” No, no they didn’t. Rancid came out of Operation Ivy, a seminal ska punk band from the Gilman Street scene of the later 80s.

I don’t want to harp on this too much because overall this is a great film and one well-worth seeing if you have any interest in punk rock. I will say though that the decade from 81 to 91 is always given short shrift in discussions about punk. People pretend that punk was dead but that’s not true. I started going to punk rock shows in 1985 and I saw an awful lot of bands in an era when “nothing happened.” More than that, it was during this period that the punk scene really came into its own as a self-supporting network of clubs, record labels, and fanzines. So many of the early bands had problems because they couldn’t tour or get their records made without getting sucked into the hell of major labels. Well, that changed in the 80s. It became possible to put out your record on an independent label and tour North America and Europe without the involvement of the commercial Music Industry. That is an achievement and not one often recognized.

Getting back to the film, it continues on from the so-called “Year That Punk Broke” and to the present day, though it doesn’t do much more than mock MTV bands like Sum 41 and Blink 182 (which was fine by me). It then tries to tie everything up by noting the continuity of punk attitude through the years. And it takes little more than flashing some shorts of Bush and Blair to give the message that the punk attitude is needed now more than ever. It is, in fact, quite illuminating to think back on the social and political situation that helped birth punk in the 70s and compare it to what’s going on today. In many ways, the state of the world has only gotten worse and even more Orwellian. There will almost certainly be a reaction against NeoCon hell we are living in. The question is, what form will it take this time?

As for Punk: Attitude, I recommend it, though I’m not sure where you’ll be able to see it. It is associated with Independent Film Channel, so maybe it’ll end up being show there. Otherwise, watch your local art theaters. If you want a two-hour lesson in punk rock history, there isn’t a better source.

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