Mandatory ’80s Punk Movies
Amazing news for punk rock fans last week, as Shout! Factory announced the June 2015 release of a Decline of Western Civilization DVD box set. Getting Penelope Spheeris's three music documentaries in one uniform edition is cool, but the real coup here is the long-awaited official release of the first installment on DVD.
For years I've been getting by with a bootleg copy of the film and my original copy of the soundtrack on vinyl. That hardly seems just, as Decline is easily the most important video document of the late '70s punk scene in Los Angeles. Not only does the movie capture performances from legends like X, Fear, Circle Jerks, and a pre-Rollins Black Flag, but we get great little nuggets like this one from future Foo Fighter Pat Smear:
I was so jazzed by the news that I dug through my stacks, looking for other early '80s punk rock movies that may have fallen on hard times.
The Clash's Rude Boy remains in print, so that's a good one to pick up if you're a fan of the only band that matters. Released in 1980, Rude Boy is a fiction-meets-concert film hybrid arranged around a roadie named Ray Gange. Ray seems to be a typical U.K. twenty-something of the era -- on the dole, apathetic, drunkenly chasing ladies and music. He latches onto the Clash, which gives each band member a chance for screen time and provides ample opportunity for concert footage.
Apparently the band was unhappy with the final cut and tried to distance themselves from the project on its release. I don't get it. Some of their greatest concert footage comes from Rude Boy.
Also released in 1980 was Julien Temple's The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, a glorious mess of a movie that laid the foundation for This is Spinal Tap. Intermingled with 1978-79 era footage of the Sex Pistols is something resembling a story featuring guitarist Steve Jones as a detective, but the whole thing is really just a giant Malcolm McClaren put on. Throughout the movie McClaren purports to teach the viewer how to swindle cash out of record labels.
What makes both Swindle and Decline mandatory viewing is that they capture just how threatening punk seemed at the time. Parents were sure that their little darlings were in grave danger from this latest blight on society.
Temple revisited the Sex Pistols with 2000's The Filth and the Fury, which is far superior as a documentary but lacks Swindle's absurdity and fun.
A couple of the great early '80s punk movies weren't concert films at all. Penelope Spheeris returned to the punk rock well for 1983's Suburbia, which was a low budget drama about runaway punks. Flea has a bit part in it, which is most of the reason for its cult status, but it's also just enough cheesy fun to make it worth your time.
And then there's 1984's classic Repo Man, starring Emilio Esteves as the disenfranchised youth with a taste for punk. He takes a job repossessing cars while his friends continue terrorizing Los Angeles with their punk rock crimes ("Let's go get sushi and not pay.")
The final film on my essential early '80s punk playlist was never released theatrically, nor has it ever been released on DVD that I know of. We Destroy the Family: Punks vs. Parents was a 1982 documentary produced by Los Angeles station KABC-TV.
A good night with a stack of movies from the period is really the only way to feel just how dangerous the early waves of punk felt to the establishment. Today punk is the stuff of Broadway shows and halls of fame -- it's not uncommon to go to a show and see little Caleb with his fauxhawk sitting on Dad's shoulders.
But it wasn't always like that, so pick up a stack of films and relive what it was like when a new generation was doing it their way.