Director: Don Letts
Writers: Don Letts
Release Date: 1978/2008 (USA)
Originally released 30 years ago right as the punk thing was just starting to take off, The Punk Rock Movie is a paradoxical concept when you consider that a movement this antisocial would under no circumstances allow itself to be filmed – I mean, if you were to go by the Punk Rock Rulebook. Punk DJ Don Letts was the guy who infiltrated that blanket of punker isolation, filming a bunch of groups with a super 8 camera at the exclusively punk club he owned in London, The Roxy.
There are a few reasons why Letts’ project worked. First of all, groups like the Sex Pistols obviously loved attention, even if they claimed not to. Second, there’s basically no dialogue or actual interviewing to be found in this movie. It’s more or less a series of song performances plopped down next to each other and juxtaposed with some random scenes of kids distantly talking to one another. The press release that came with the movie praised it as “stripped down and raw”, and I won’t argue against those descriptions, but the problem is in fact that the filming is too gritty for my 2008 senses to take in.
Besides the fact that the film overlooks Crass, those maniacal anti-musicians who were banned from The Roxy around the time The Punk Rock Movie was being filmed, it’s incredible who actually did make the cut. The roster includes bands you wouldn’t think to mention in a historical punk discussion: Slaughter and the Dogs, Subway Sect, Alternative TV, Wayne Country, etc. And sure, you could argue that while the punk movement was happening, you’d never know which ones would last since they were all set on self-destruction (particularly in Britain), but that doesn’t change the fact that on the Relevance Meter, most of this movie fails to chart.
As far as capturing punkers shooting heroin in a bathroom stall and carving shit into their stomachs, bravo. You don’t see that on film too much. But musically, it’s a little less exciting than that. Every performance is dominated by that canny, really loud kind of silence that you get in crappier YouTube videos, where it sounds like a vacuum cleaner is cleaning the space right by the microphone. I had the volume way cranked up so that when I put on music afterwards, I blew my ear drums. You’d think the crappy sound would work since it’s a film about bands who don’t care too much about how they sound, but you’d be wrong. This shit requires more attention than your average punk rocker is willing to spare.
There aren’t really any interviews in the film, just a bunch of fly-on-the-wall observations like Radiohead’s Meeting People is Easy. During these little segues, sound isn’t as much of an issue because there’s no music to be not hearing. Also, the songs you aren’t hearing get a little repetitive by the end. You’ll get pretty sick of “White Riot” by the Clash, which is the menu music and shows up at least twice in the film. And the super Sex Pistols overkill at the end of the movie – maybe 5 or 6 songs in a row – is at least interesting, but really makes you question how this qualifies as a ‘movie’.
As for special features, there’s just one Johnny Rotten interview, in which he clarifies that he hates the term ‘punk rock’ because it’s cliché (which totally surprised me.) Honestly, this single interview is probably better than the entire film, because for one thing you can hear what’s going on. Plus, there’s more insight in the questions and answers. When asked for his opinion on Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, Rotten answers, “What, do you want me to be sick on camera?”