Punk is so much more than loud music with rebellious lyrics screamed over electric guitars wailing three chords and 16th notes. It’s more than leather jackets, Mohawks and patches. It’s even more than radical politics that veer far right or far left. It's rough around the edges, cheap to make and anti-establishment. And while music is what many think of when they hear the word "punk," the label straddles art forms.
Here are five of the greatest punk movies of all time. Some chronicle punk culture, some are urgent political or cultural expressions — and others just shoot the middle finger at common decency.
James Spooner’s 2003 documentary
looks at punk musical acts like Bad Brains, Tamar-Kali and Cipher that had African-American members. It addresses the challenges that black youth faced growing up in the punk scene, the racism and isolation they experienced, and strategies they used to navigate both the anarchic possibilities of punk and the all-too-often all-white DIY spaces and shows. The film is an uncanny look at punk from the margins, and a window into the experience of racial isolation in white-dominant subcultures.
The Last of England
Many consider Derek Jarman’s Jubilee to be one of the greatest punk films of all time — but instead, look to his The Last of England. Jarman was a maverick, gay-arthouse filmmaker from England who died of AIDS-related complications in 1994. Many of his films were mash-ups of Super 8 and video, deeply personal, politically anarchic and infused with high art, paintings and poetry. The Last of England, which opens with a punk rocker stomping on a Carravagio painting of Cupid and then grinding on it, is a full-throttle attack on Margaret Thatcher’s England and the political despair that plagued the nation in the early 1980s. The movie is at once a hateful screed against the establishment, a poetic meditation on desire and the collapse of tradition, a personal reflection on art and politics, and a love letter to a dying nation.
Born in Flames
Feminist separatism may have reached its cinematic apotheosis in Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames, a crudely made science-fiction film posing as a documentary about a post-capitalist American society in which gangs of women on bikes attack patriarchal rapist men, black feminists draw the line with white feminists, cops murder, and the finer debates within socialism play out chaotically between competing factions of women striving for power. It’s an angry film. It’s a brilliant film. And its fragmented, documentary style competes with the most aggressive punk music.
Sid and Nancy
If you want a traditional film that captures the chaos of the punk scene, don't miss the tragic, artful Sid and Nancy, a look at Sid Vicious, the Sex Pistols bassist, and his lover, Nancy Spungen. The film chronicles the duo as they drag each other down into a pit of heroin addiction and despair, destroying the band and ultimately dying. It’s beautifully shot and full of the tragic-romantic drama of Romeo and Juliet — with a huge overdose of loathing.
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While tidy histories of punk often omit the unfortunate role that skinheads played in the subculture, Bruce La Bruce's Skin Flick doesn’t just acknowledge neo-Nazis — it eroticizes them. The movie dives into a gang of skinheads who go around bashing queers, attacking people of color and jerking each other off. Is it satire? Maybe. Is it troublesome? Yes. It’s as hostile toward establishment LGBT politics and any semblance of political liberalism as gay porn has ever been.
For more punk cinema, check out Never Mind the Bolex: Punk Rock Film! The screening will start at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, October 8, at GLOB, 3551 Brighton Boulevard. There’s a $5 to $8 suggested donation at the door; for more information, go to the Facebook event page.