Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Punk Rock Movie (1978)

          An impressive historical artifact created by a DJ who happened to be in the right place at the right time, lo-fi documentary The Punk Rock Movie captures vintage performances from several of the most important British acts to emerge during the original punk-rock era. The Clash, Generation X (with Billy Idol fronting), the Sex Pistols, and Siouxsie and the Banshees are among the groups on display, mostly in performance footage but also, occasionally, in candid clips. Anyone looking for you-are-there reportage of what it felt like to catch seminal acts at the Roxy, a London club that presented punk music exclusively for several months, will devour The Punk Rock Movie. From the pierced and tattooed kids bopping around the dancefloor to the attitudinal musicians screeching onstage, the punk scene is depicted in all its ugly glory. As for the question of whether anyone who isn’t predisposed toward punk might dig watching this flick, an easy test is the scene featuring the group Eater tossing a pig’s head onstage, chopping up the head with cleavers, and then tossing the pieces into the audience. To be fair, that’s as extreme as the movie gets, but it says something about the youthful extremes of old-school punk. Sometimes these brash sounds conveyed political rage, as when the Sex Pistols satirized the British monarchy with “God Save the Queen,” and sometimes they represented little more than kids being obnoxious.
          In any event, the story behind the picture is that Don Letts, a DJ at the Roxy, used a Super-8 camera to record bands and audiences during the club’s punk period. His access was as remarkable as the litany of groups he got on camera, though the actual music is very much a matter of taste. Some acts who later adopted slicker styles, notably Siouxsie and the Banshees, appear here in fairly rough early incarnations, whereas famous short-lived acts, especially the Sex Pistols, operate at the height of their powers. Letts’ filming style is competent but ordinary—being limited to one camera prohibited him from covering any single performance with multiple angles. Still, he mostly trains his eye on the most interesting things onstage, so it’s a kick to see Mick Jones and Joe Strummer of the Clash pounding out “White Riot,” or to see a pre-MTV Billy Idol howling “Walking in the City” with Generation X. FYI, the Pistols’ performance—their first with infamous bassist Sid Vicous—was the only set shot outside the Roxy, because Letts caught the band at a London movie theater. More trivia: In the U.S., this picture was released as The Punk Rock Movie from England.

The Punk Rock Movie: FUNKY


Peter L. Winkler said...

I never heard of a Super 9 movie camera. And how was the sound recorded? I assume it was recorded seperately on magnetic tape, no?

By Peter Hanson said...

Super-8, of course -- just a silly typo, now fixed. As for the sound, presumably he had on on-board mic feeding to a synced recorder or something like that. The audio in the film is quite ratty, though I gather the filmmaker later sweetened the tracks with studio recordings for certain sequences.

Will Errickson said...

An essential part of any '80s punk's videocassette library! If you had the $$$ to buy a copy. Boy back in the day being a punk rocker was *expensive.*