How many punk rockers does it take to change a light bulb? None, because punk rockers don't change anything. Thirty years on from The Sex Pistols, The Damned, and The Ramones, punk bands are still making the same bad noises, protesting against the same failures of society, and wearing the same clothes and hairstyles.
Punks never were good musicians. And that's partly the point. "It didn't matter if anybody had any talent or could do anything," says Bruce Loose from Flipper. "It was whether they had the balls or the guts to get up and do it." This is DIY music for the underdog, music that anyone could get up and play in their local basement club (and anyone often did get up and play). Punk was a reaction against prog-rock, arena gigs, 7-minute guitar solos, vocal harmonies, and light shows. Punk was music with a message, a raw message screamed in your face with all the subtlety of a toddler's tantrum. Punk was "hippies with teeth". But hippies didn't change the world with their message of peace and free love; and neither did punks. "Things that we sing about could be construed as cliché, as far as punk rock is concerned," admits Kevin De Franco, lead singer of The God Awfuls. "But it's not us that is cliché. It's the fucking world. Nothing ever changes."
Kevin De Franco of The God Awfuls. Film still from Punk's Not Dead.
But as Punk's Not Dead so clearly shows, punk itself has changed. Green Day, The Offspring, Good Charlotte, and Sum 41 have brought their brand of pop-punk to the mainstream - "brand" being the operative word. The Warped Tour is backed by big corporations. Kids can buy their entire punk outfit from Hot Topic stores at the mall. The whole look of punk has been commercialized as advertisers realize there is a self-made demographic to exploit for profit. This selling out has made the older generation of punks quite snobbish and protective of their punk status, claiming that the new generation of commercially successful bands aren't punk because they sell too many records, play to large audiences, and exploit the capitalist mass media to get their music out there. Punk is now more of a fashion statement than an ideology. But as Tim Armstrong from Rancid says, "Who am I to say you're not [a punk rocker]?"
Director Susan Dynner pokes a safety pin into all of these issues, but lets the punks speak for (and against) themselves. Her beautifully crafted documentary features some of her own vibrant photos of the Washington, DC punk scene in the 80s alongside rare (and raw) live footage that really captures the excitement and variety of punk in its various forms. Punk is such an umbrella term, meaning something slightly different for each individual and each punk scene, that the film can offer no coherent answers to the questions it raises, except that punk is still alive and well, if a little richer, more professional, and more mainstream than it was in the beginning.
Dynner also debunks the myth of a punk renaissance. As punk historian Alan Parker points out, there seems to be an invisible line from The Sex Pistols breaking up at Winterland to Nirvana, a gap of some 15 years when punk disappeared from the mainstream consciousness. There was certainly a low point for punk in the late 80s, but it didn't cease to exist; it simply went back underground, where its roots always have been and continue to thrive. Old school bands like Stiff Little Fingers, Social Distortion, UK Subs, The Adicts, and Subhumans have either kept playing or reformed and are still on the road. "Yeah, give it to them raw while you're still alive," says Subhumans front man Dick Lucas.
Dynner used the internet to solicit material from DIY punk scenes all over the world to contribute to the film. 86 minutes in, she includes footage from New Zealand, Serbia, Iceland, Indonesia, Lithuania, Belgium, Russia, Israel, Spain, Croatia, Italy, Finland, Austria, Uruguay, Japan, France, and Australia, capturing the old underground DIY spirit of the early days of punk.
It's this sort of material that makes the film stand out from conventional music documentaries that always feature old-timers proselytizing nostalgically about the old days and harping on about how cool they used to be. There is a fair bit of that in this film, but it's also refreshing to focus on the people and the scene they created rather than the heard-them-once, heard-them-all stories of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' boring roll. (If that's the sort of film you're after, End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones (2003) and New York Doll (2005) do it very well.)
Punk's Not Dead is fast-paced and stylized, observing a scene talking about itself, rather than seeking to box it into a corner. One of the rare subjective interventions by the filmmakers is a brilliant piss-take montage of new generation pop-punk bands bouncing in slow-mo to Johann Strauss's "Blue Danube" waltz. One senses that Dynner is on the side of the oldies, but is still happy to let the new kids have their fun in their own way.
The film spills over into some valuable extras on the DVD that are rightfully cut from the main feature. Had they been kept in, the documentary would have lost its clear through-line and punk aesthetic of being short, fast, and in your face without messing about. The extras sketch out the wider punk scene, looking into punk housing; Jimmy Carter's presidential decree bribing major record labels not to sign punk bands by offering them tax breaks; as well as short histories of legendary punk clubs CBGB (New York), The Roxy (London), and The Masque (LA). They also include outtakes such as one of the ageing Adicts falling onstage during a gig and being unable to get up; and some of the interviewees messing around with ventriloquist puppets and telling jokes.
Nugget: what emerges from the film is that punk isn't so much about the bands or the music. It's a way of life. It's about the people, the social exchange. The bands are just a point of gathering, an inspiration for creating a radical change within each individual subscriber to the punk ideal. Has punk rock changed the world? "I don't know," says Dick Lucas of Subhumans. "It's changed my world and a lot of other people's."
This review was first posted on Blogcritics.
Note: Punk's Not Dead is being released on DVD (in the US?) on 8 July 2008. It doesn't appear to be stocked on Amazon yet, but it is available through the official movie website. Thanks to Rachel Glass for sending me the screener. The unconventional way of soliciting this review - emailing bloggers like me at random because I appeared to review films - is in keeping with the DIY punk spirit of the film, which, as I said above, includes internet-generated content from local punk scenes all over the world.