Penelope Spheeris’ classic 1980s punk documentary, The Decline of the Western Civilization was re-released last month, accompanied by its two follow-ups, Part II, covering the “The Metal Years” and Part III, focusing on a new generation of punk kids in the 90s. Presented as a collection, the three films provide an unflinching look at how music—particularly aggressive music known as “punk”—can transcend entertainment to become a lifestyle.
The best punk documentaries portray an outsider mindset, an artistic, anti-authority message that speaks to disenfranchised youth, and a sonic belligerence that demands attention. So with the recent Decline re-release and Friday’s double feature of Part III and punk rock drama Suburbia at the famed Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, we compiled a raucous roll call of the 10 best punk rock docs.
Documenting the age of punk typified by aggression and anti-establishment rage, American Hardcore spotlights the U.S. bands that bulldozed through the early ‘80’s, back when the tornado of kids circling the floor was called a slam pit (now “mosh pit”). The Circle Jerks, Minor Threat, Bad Brains, Black Flag, JFA, DOA, The Minutemen, SSD Control, Agnostic Front, 7 Seconds, Gang Green, and many more are featured, with the story shown chronologically and by region. Based on Steven Blush’s book of the same name, this film’s strength comes from its broad coverage of bands big and small on the scene, and from eloquent interviews with now middle-aged former punkers like Henry Rollins reliving their angry days.
Shock-rocker GG Allin was more of a performance artist than a music artist, always going for the vilest and most subversive stunts he could think of on stage. Not for the faint of heart, this chronicle of the madman’s career doesn’t shy away from even his most repugnant moments. And though his musical talent was minimal at best, his shameless thirst to offend is fascinating, if not exactly entertaining. Allin didn’t die, as he’d often promised, of an on-stage suicide, but of drug overdose. It’s hard to believe the guy was for real, but Hated seems to suggest he was as warped off stage as his publicity rants always promised. Like a proper horror flick, you’ll want to look away but peek through your fingers at this disturbing portrait of punk rock’s biggest freak.
Stage divers and mosh pit maniacs got nothing on the temper tantrums of a four-year-old. In this striking documentary about punk rock dads (inspired by Pennywise singer Jim Lindberg’s book) the challenges of dealing with both are covered with heart, but it never comes off schmaltzy. Relentless touring, the struggle to maintain popularity with a new wave of punk fans and trying to raise a family is a tough balancing act, but fathers/rock figures including members of The Adolescents, Rancid, NOFX, Rise Against, and Bad Religion were doing all of it with the equal aplomb when the film was made. Are they model parents? No way. But being “model” anything is kind of the opposite of what they stand for to begin with.
While most punk docs focus on the past, Punk’s Not Dead, as the name implies, seeks to explore the label’s meaning and appeal now, posing questions anyone who was into it “when it was cool” has asked regarding selling out, the validity of pop-friendly sub-genres, and the music and fashion’s influence on the mainstream. It’s a comprehensive, even exhaustive look at modern scene that gives equal time to Warped Tour bands, grunge, and the original noise-rockers in the U.S. and U.K. who started it all. For some, punk and what it was originally about, is dead. For others it’s simply evolved, its spirit being the point. The conflicting opinions presented give this one life. As talking head du jour Henry Rollins makes clear (again), punks are an opinionated bunch.
Don Letts’ Super 8 masterpiece, shot almost exclusively at the Roxy in London where he was a DJ, is a must see for fans of punk’s emergence in the late ‘70s in Britain. It’s full of historic clips: the Sex Pistols’ first time on stage with Sid Vicious, Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers doing “Chinese Rocks,” Jayne (then Wayne) County & the Electric Chairs doing “F*ck Off,” and much more. Grainy and gritty like the music it celebrates, the film has been released a few times since it was first shown in theaters in 1978—via VHS in the 80s and DVD in 2006. Make sure you find an early copy as the later versions’ live music spots feature over-dubbed studio recordings. So not punk.
Best known for its bizarre interview with Sid Vicious and girlfriend Nancy Spungen (in bed) just a few months before they died, DOA has a bleakness about it that’s palpable. The film looks at the punk phenomenon, with the Pistols as the starting point, chronicling their last tour of the U.S. via performances, crowd reaction, and the outraged status quo. Clips of peer punks like Generation X, The Dead Boys, Sham 69, and even the poseur band Tyler and the Idiots give the film a broader scope, showing the impact punk was starting to have on pop culture at the time and would for years to come.
Capturing the tribulations of road life better than most punk docs out there, this ’84 tour de force (pun intended) follows Social Distortion and Youth Brigade as they travel together throughout the U.S. and Canada early in their careers. Though Youth Brigade’s Shawn Stern states early on that the tour was about dispelling preconceptions (“we’re trying to prove that punks aren’t just mindless morons going around beating each other up”) the conflicts between the players seem to prove other wise. Social D’s guy-linered Mike Ness and his band almost break up. Suffering for art doesn’t always work out, it seems. Still, a wealth of interviews with the bands and punk fans talking about their lifestyle choices and what drives their DIY proclivities are compelling. Bonus points for the Minor Threat segments.
As effervescent and potent as the Ramones themselves, End of the Century examines the band that arguably had a bigger influence on punk rock music than any other. Its all here—their humble beginnings in Queens, New York, their emergence and reign at clubs like CBGB, the struggle of touring and making records (records that were respected but never made them rich) and their bitter end as a band, as friends, and as living rock icons via overdose (Dee Dee) and cancer (Joey, then Johnny soon after the film was released). The interviews are provocative, going beyond the band’s image to reveal each members’ distinctive personalities and conflicts. The tension made for ferocious chemistry on stage, and as the film’s uncensored portrayal makes clear, it also led to complete dysfunction offstage.
As a chronicle of the Sex Pistols history and a full-bodied representation of its members’ talent and tempestuousness, Fury is a striking success, much more than The Great Rock ‘n’ Swindle. Julien Temple directed both, but the former was more a vehicle for producer Malcolm McLaren to self-promote than anything else. Fury features interviews with the band, live footage, archival clips from the era, and a nice dose of information already shared in Swindle, but still offers a raw and real (if still sardonic and artful) take on the formation and ultimate self-destruction of the band.
No punk film captures the feel of the time in which it was made better than Decline. Brimming with energy, excitement, and candid expression, Spheeris’ provides total immersion into the Los Angeles underground music scene in 1979-80. From the pit, on stage, and in conversation with Cali punk’s iconic creators and their fans, this all-encompassing exploration delves deep into what was then a misunderstood sub-culture. What’s engrossing about this film is that viewers actually hear Spheeris’s voice asking the questions, which gives the dialog an intimate feel. We’re on this journey with the director and its obvious she knows her subject very well. Featuring X, Black Flag, The Circle Jerks, The Alice Bag Band, Fear, and the Germs (whose singer Darby Crash died just before it was released) Decline deserves props for not only giving the women of punk rock their most reverent voice, but putting California punk’s significance in historical context that would never be forgotten.