For a teenaged punk nerd thirsty for knowledge in the 1980’s, things were somewhat dismal. Sure, there was always some older kid who was off to college and looking to unload his fanzine or record collection for pennies, but the hunt for actual video footage of early stuff was fruitless. Maybe you’d find someone who had a copy of a copy of a copy of a Minor Threat or Black Flag show, but even if you did, it was probably as grainy and unwatchable as a scrambled porn channel.
But in the past decade, we have seen a bevy of documentaries come out on the history of punk. So many in fact, that some actually complain of there being a glut of the things. This is a concept I cannot wrap my head around. I think back to those wobbly looking videos I watched as a youth and cannot see how you can whine about living in a time where documentaries are being produced by people with a passion for getting the true story of Punk out there into a world zombified by the countless documentaries on the many cultural dinosaurs punk was a reaction towards.
Below is a list of the ten best punk documentaries spanning the dry spells of the early 80’s to the wellspring of films from the past decade.
10) PUNK Attitude (Don Letts, 2005)
PUNK Attitude castes an ambitiously wide net in trying to encapsulate the entire history of punk within an hour-and-a-half, but Don Letts most certainly succeeded. The obvious tales of punk’s explosion in New York City and London are covered thoroughly, but where the film really excels is by stretching back as far as the 60’s to highlight punk’s roots in bands such as New York’s Velvet Underground and Detroit’s MC5 and The Stooges while also giving screen time to explain the American Hardcore scene via interviews with Agnostic Front’s Roger Miret and Ray Cappo from Youth of Today. No bones about it; PUNK Attitude is the most all-encompassing of punk documentaries.
9) UK/DK: A Film About Punks and Skinheads (Christopher Collins, 1983)
In early 80’s Britain, the country had their own form of Hardcore Punk with bands such as Blitz, The Varukers, The Business and Chaos UK doling out no-nonsense buzzsaw punk in reaction to the sudden commerical shift by many of the forerunner punk bands of ‘77. Collins’ film is a perfect snapshot of that scene by showing the conflicts between punks and skinheads via gritty riotous live footage of the afore mentioned bands cut together with interviews with punk journalists, band members and fans alike. The segment with the band Disorder drinking homebrewed beer in their squat is worth the proverbial price of admission alone.
8) THE SLOG MOVIE (Dave Markey, 1982)
Shot on super8 film in 1981 direct from the ferocious slam pits of Southern California by teenaged filmmaker Dave Markey, The Slog Movie is the most in-the-moment portrait we have of the American Hardcore scene in its infancy. From Henry Rollins first show singing for Black Flag to the Circle Jerks headlining the Whisky A Go-Go to a hilariously awkward beachside performance by the long-haired, Daisy Duke short sporting Redd Kross, the film jumps from historical moment to historical moment in such a casual manner that it’s simply mind blowing. Strung together in a haphazard fashion that is as chaotic and life-affirming as the scene it documents, The Slog Movie is a mandatory watch for any Hardcore kid.
7) xxx ALL AGES xxx (Drew Stone, 2012)
Hardcore punk veteran Drew Stone’s documentary about one of the earliest Hardcore punk scenes in the U.S outside of California and Washington D.C moves as fast, short and spiritedly as the music which came from the city. By meshing vintage footage from shows featuring SS Decontrol and The F.U’s with stills of the stark, black and white photography of Phil ‘N’ Phlash and Bruce Rhodes with present day reunion performances by DYS and Jerry’s Kids, Stone provides a hell of a window into one of the most fabled Hardcore scenes of the 1980’s.
6) PUNK’S NOT DEAD (Susan Dynner, 2007)
Dynner’s excellent documentary looks at punk through a broad lense and takes in both its past and its present from all angles. Much time is spent pontificating on where punk stands today in the face of its commodification through Hot Topic, The Warped Tour and the corporate sponsorships of cookie cutter pop punk bands. But time is also given to show the DIY shows that still happen in the vomit caked basements of punk houses to this day. Mike Ness of Social DIstortion, Charlie Harper of the U.K Subs Sab Grey from Iron Cross and Dick Lucas of the Subhumans all give hilarious and poignant soliloquies on their philosophies on punk. A must see for sure.
5) ANOTHER STATE OF MIND (Adam Small, Peter Stuart, 1983)
This documentary about a U.S tour shared between Southern California Hardcore Punk bands Youth Brigade and Social Distortion in 1982 didn’t have much of a theatrical release, but the impact it had on pockets of disenfranchised youth across America when it was shown on a late night cable show called “Night Flight” was nothing short of monumental. Acting as something of a Hardcore Punk starter kit, the film showed the very unglamourous though strangely appealing side of punk touring, gave an instructional guide to slam dancing and stage diving while also providing the world with some heart-stopping footage of Minor Threat.
4) THE FILTH AND THE FURY (Julien Temple, 2000)
Julien Temple was the director responsible for “The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle”, the 1980 film which told the story of The Sex Pistols from the viewpoint of the bands’ manipulative manager, Malcolm McLaren. With “The Filth And The Fury”, Temple makes amends for that film by getting the story straight from the Pistols’ mouths this time around. Hair raising tales of physical attacks. little pay from McLaren and the grief felt in the heroin overdose death of the band’s’ bassist Sid Vicious are all dealt with in a very direct, unflinching manner. The way Temple repurposes footage from “The Great Rock ‘N Roll Swindle” in the film is nothing short of revelatory and takes “The Filth And The Fury” beyond simply being a documentary about a band and into it being a film which makes you question the truth in everything around you.
3) AMERICAN HARDCORE (Paul Rachman, Steven Blush, 2007)
Steven Blush’s 2001 book American Hardcore was a literary mallet to the head making people finally realize the cultural impact the early 80’s phenomenon had on underground culture. The film adaptation he made with director Paul Rachman in 2007 spells out the importance of that initial spark even further as it traces Hardcore’s initial beginnings in places such as Southern California, Washington D.C and Boston with a mix of crude footage from back in the day and insightful present day interviews with the likes of Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat, Vinnie Stigma of Agnostic Front and Henry Rollins of Black Flag.
2) WE JAM ECONO (Tim Irwin, 2005)
“We Jam Econo” tells the story of one of the most innovative bands to come out of the early 80’s American Punk scene: San Pedro, California’s Minutemen. Made up of three dudes who had the lethal combination of having both a blue collar aesthetic and a fierce intellect, the band cut a unique path through the punk scene and the film perfectly captures how they thrilled some punks to tears while confusing some enough to spit and attack them on stage. Everyone from the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea to X’s John Doe come forward to testify their love of the band, but it’s Minutemen bass player Mike Watt who lays out the band’s history the best in a manner somewhat akin to sitting on a porch sharing a few beers.
1) THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION (Penelope Spheeris, 1981)
Penelope Spheeris’ first foray into documentary film-making ended up unconsciously capturing the California Punk scene as it morphed into Hardcore, and in turn, educated the country of
slam dancing, stage diving and the fervent physicality of this new form of punk that was brewing out west. The electric performances from Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Fear and The Germs fused with the wantonly violent dance floor action exposed in this film informed many kids in America there was something out there they related to on a gut level. The number of people inspired by this film to start bands, make fanzines and generally reek havoc must be staggering.
Green Room Radio is presented by A24’s punk-thriller, Green Room