Punks on Film

by ZuZu Cypher

This article originally appeared on the punk rock section of About.Com (formerly The Mining Co.) in 1998.

Perhaps due to the heavy media coverage by Hollywood/Los Angeles newspapers of the so-called punk violence of the early California punk scene, punks became a favorite scapegoat for popular films. As a matter of clarification, the violence credited to California punks was largely incited by police raids of otherwise peaceful shows, in which the police would run in and start beating members of the audience and bands without provocation.

Whatever the reason, the newest template for vulgar, stupid, criminal thugs was the stereotypical punk. Action films in particular used this characterization as a source of “humor”. The protagonist/hero would have to do battle with wild-eyed, knife-wielding punks with technicolor fake mohawks and regulation leather jackets. But these punk thugs rarely offered any real challenge for the hero. On the contrary, they were disposed of with all speed, often with a cutesy catch phrase from the hero.

Sometimes, punks were not even given enough personality to fight. They would merely be a bullying prescence, shoving old ladies, robbing subway riders or just playing loud, scratchy music (that was decidedly not punk) to get on the nerves of innocent bystanders. Also common was the fictional assertion that punk boyfriends was a sure sign that little Susie Suburbia was “going bad,” which would inevitably mean that little Susie was going to run away and become a drug-addicted prostitute. At best, teen films were keen on portraying the wacky friend of the protagonist as an eccentric type, with weird haircuts and punk/new wave posters on their bedroom walls. Naturally, the wacky friend was just a supporting role in the coming-of-age story of an otherwise “normal” teen.

However, there were a few films that portrayed punks as more multi-faceted. In 1980, the film The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle (directed by Julien Temple) told a fictional story of the Sex Pistols from the point of view of their manager Malcolm McLaren. The film was hard to follow, and downright silly, but it did not cast punks in a particularly unfavorable light. That is of course unless you find the notion of a band started solely to steal money from record labels and become notorious to be unfavorable. In amongst the cartoons and absurd pseudo-musical vignettes were some actual performances by the Sex Pistols and actual documentary footage.

In 1981, the film Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (directed by Lou Adler and starring Diane Lane, Laura Dern and Paul Cook and Steve Jones [formerly of the Sex Pistols]) chose to portray punks in a comedic way without completely slamming them into the mold of mindless thugs.

1981 also saw the release of the real documentary D.O.A. (directed by Lou Adler). This film focused on the first Sex Pistols US tour in 1978 and also featured performances by the Dead Boys, X-Ray Spex, Sham 69, Generation X and the Rich Kids as well as a famous interview with Sex Pistols “bassist” and punk legend Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen, conducted in their bed. In this excellent film, no one makes fools of punks except themselves.

That same year, The Decline of Western Civilization (directed by Penelope Spheeris) was released. This documentary not only showed the bands of the early California scene, it also featured the fans and the journalists prevalent in the scene. The film showed performances by and other footage of bands like The Bags (Alice Bag Band), Black Flag, X, The Circle Jerks, Catholic Discipline, Fear and the Germs. The treatment was loving, and the film displays some intelligent and often hilarious points of view from punks in the scene.

Yet another excellent documentary was released in 1981, Urgh! A Music War (directed by Derek Burbridge). The film didn’t specifically focus on punk (it also featured reggae and new wave) but it did capture amazing performances by Toyah, Chelsea, the Go-Gos, X, The Dead Kennedys, Magazine, Au Pairs, The Cramps, Gang of Four and 999. The soundtrack is a must-have if you can find it.

1983 saw the release of the landmark film Suburbia (directed by Penelope Spheeris and also known by the title The Wild Side). The film was made with real punks in lead roles. These kids weren’t actors, but they weren’t spoofs or near approximations of punks. They were the real thing. The story is of a runaway who finds a new family in a group of runaway punks and squatters, and a tragedy that splinters the tight-knit group. The film features Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers and Fear) as Razzle, as well as performances by D.I., TSOL and the Vandals.

1984 was the release year for the cult classic Repo Man (directed by Alex Cox and starring Harry Dean Stanton and Emilio Estevez). The film was the story of a young punk who befriends a hard-boiled repo man, and who later becomes a repo man himself. What begins as a comedy/drama spirals into a bizarre sci-fi tale with a great soundtrack. The Circle Jerks appear in the film as themselves, and the soundtrack remains one of the best punk-related soundtracks to date with songs by Iggy Pop, Fear, The Plugz, Suicidal Tendencies, Black Flag, The Circle Jerks and more.

The following year, 1985, a horror-comedy Return of the Living Dead (directed by Dano Bannon) emerged with a poster portraying rotting punk zombies. Indeed, the film shows a cartoonish gang of punks with names like Spider, Scuz, Trash and Suicide that become zombies and eat the brains of the living. While I wouldn’t say this film portrays punks in a “positive” light, the flavor of the movie must be considered. No one in this movie is really portrayed in a “positive” light, and it’s obviously an over-the-top splatter horror flick with no socio-political overtones whatsoever. The soundtrack, however, features 45 Grave, The Cramps, and the Damned.

In 1987, Dudes (directed by Penelope Spheeris and starring Jon Cryer and Daniel Roebuck) was released. This film tells the story of two punks on a road trip. When their friend is killed by a group of “rednecks”, the punks turn into latter-day cowboys. The film is most notable because of performances by Fear lead singer Lee Ving (as Missoula) and Flea (as Milo) as well as the soundtrack.

Tapeheads (directed by Bill Fishman and starring John Cusak and Tim Robbins) was released in 1988. A comedy about two security guards who are fired from their job and decide to start a video production company. The film features Stiv Bators (Dead Boys, Lords of the New Church) as Dick Slammer, Jello Biafra (Dead Kennedys) as an FBI agent and Courtney Love (Hole). There are also odd performances by Don Cornelius (Soul Train), “Weird Al” Yankovic, Ted Nugent and executive producer Michael Nesmith (The Monkees).

Jello Biafra plays the lead character in the 1990 film Terminal City Ricochet (directed by Zale Dalen). The film, which I have yet to see, has a great soundtrack with music from D.O.A., The Beatnigs, Nomeansno, I, Braineater and Groovaholics.

Punk and film continue to merge these days with more characters of substance, and more performances by punk personalities. Henry Rollins, formerly of Black Flag, has appeared in 7 films (as well as an appearance on TV’s Unsolved Mysteries as “Friend of the Victim”!) as have Fear singer Lee Ving (13 films), bassist Flea (20 films) and Iggy Pop (13 films). Mike Watt of Minutemen and fIREHOSE has appeared in two films, and Paul Cook and Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols have appeared together in two films as well. Keith Morris of Black Flag and the Circle Jerks has appeared in 4 films.

ZuZu is tendering for the position of busiest slacker on earth. When she’s not writing, she forces other people to do so for her main “main”, dangermedia.org. She also does a weekly radio show, runs two retail sites, a web design company, translation services and does freelance work in the independent music industry.