Remember when punk rock was scary? Way back when, there was a place in my home town called the Continental that was one of the first all punk/new wave clubs in the country. As a teen whose idea of cutting edge music was The Eagles, I was terrified to go anywhere near the place. I wised up eventually, though I could still kick myself when I think of all the great bands I missed in the early days.
Original punk is big in movie theaters these days with the Joy Division biopic Closer and the Joe Strummer documentary The Future is Unwritten, opening today in limited release. I’m really looking forward to seeing both of them, and hoping they’ll rank with the 1980s films that expanded my musical boundries in the first place. So here are my nominees, in alphabetical order, for the best punk movies of all time.
The Decline of Western Civilization (1981)—Penelope Spheeris’s documentary captures the rawness of the LA punk scene, with bands like the Circle Jerks, X, The Germs, and Black Flag.
D.O.A. (1980)—Amateurishly made, but an invaluable document for anyone who wants to romanticize Sid Vicious, seen here at his most pathetic with co-dependent Nancy Spungen. The sound isn’t good, but there is also footage of The Sex Pistols, The Clash, Generation X, and X-Ray Spex.
The Great Rock and Roll Swindle (1980)—Sex Pistols Svengali Malcolm McLaren took over production of this movie to make it conform with his myth of the band, and while it doesn’t have a whole lot to do with reality, it’s cartoonish fun. God knows what would have happened to it had Russ Meyer and Roger Ebert directed and written it, per McLaren’s original plan.
Repo Man (1983) and The Return of the Living Dead (1985)—These may not be movies about punk rock music, but they have more genuine punk attitude than a dozen Green Day CDs. And if you were a punk fan in the 80s, who probably wore out a few copies of the soundtrack albums.
Rude Boy (1980)—This largely improvised story about a slacker who becomes a roadie for The Clash tends to bore Americans who aren’t familiar with the issues affecting working class Brits of the day. The DVD has a special feature where you can just play the Clash’s performances.
Sid and Nancy (1986)—Alex (Repo Man) Cox’s movie about Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen has been criticized (by Johnny Rotten, no less) for playing into the myth of Tragic Sid, and it can’t be denied that it’s punk as we would like to remember it more than punk as it was. But then, if we wanted the truth we’d read books rather than going to movies, wouldn’t we?
24 Hour Party People (2002)—While most of this cheeky movie about Manchester’s Factory record label deals with that grimy city’s musical glory days in the late 80s and early 90s, the early part of the movie charts the Joy Division story. And you have to love a musical bio that casts some of the people it is about in bit parts to say to the camera, “This is not the way it really happened.”
Urgh! A Music War (1981)—This compilation of concert performances shot in 1980 includes as much new wave and reggae as it does punk, but it’s a great record of a time when popular music was exploding into dozens of new directions.
“The Young Ones” (1982)—OK, this was actually a TV show, a British comedy not shown in the US until a few years later. But as a chaotically hilarious portrait of young people living in Margaret Thatcher’s England, it’s essential to understanding the punk milieu.Read More