Just as Abraham Zapruder's amateur film isn't very good cinema but vital to the study of the JFK assassination and by extension world history, THE PUNK ROCK MOVIE is a crude but notable record of the brief, brutal heyday of Britain's punk-rock movement.
There's another similarity between this documentary and the Zapruder film. This is also basically a fuzzy home movie, shot in Super 8mm format by Don Letts, a road manager, musician, and club deejay at the short-lived Roxy music club in London. His edited footage, presented without narration,
preserves the breaking UK punk scene of 1976-77. Here are obscure bands mohawk-to-mohawk with enduring figures like Billy Idol in raucous performance at the Roxy. Sometimes they go on the road, as when the scruffy female ensemble known as The Slits put on an aggressive display at the unlikely
venue of a school right after classes. Other authority figures give the punk aesthete less of a welcome, and Chelsea constables confiscate a punk "art" window display of (simulated) severed and mutilated human body parts. Letts approaches traditional documentary format when he interviews a young
punkette who lost a retail job because of her outrageous attire, a firing that makes London tabloid headlines. Unfortunately, bad audio garbles her statements. During concerts, the punk lyrics, unintelligible under the best of circumstances, are sometimes spelled out, sometimes merely summarized,
in subtitles. Ultimately, punk superstar Johnny Rotten methodically destroys a portable phonograph as an offscreen voice playfully admonishes him.
Better documentaries cover this musical era, its defiant anarchy and freakish excesses, like the Sex Pistols apologia THE GREAT ROCK 'N' ROLL SWINDLE (1980) and the Los Angeles-oriented DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION (1981). THE PUNK ROCK MOVIE at least conveys the raw, spontaneous energy of
punk's zenith, before jaded commercialization turned the disaffected British youth of the 1970s into fashion icons who posed for tourist cameras in Trafalgar Square. Here the ascendant Johnny Rotten sneers at the camera, and he at least seems to be in on the joke. A young Siouxsie Sioux (of
Siouxsie and the Banshees) comes across as the most poised and professional of the artists. Siouxsie later became a prominent animal-rights/anti-fur campaigner; her extended set on film is preceded by a Lord of the Flies-esque sequence of a pig's severed head being hacked up onstage, then flung to
the eager crowd. This ironic juxtaposition may be intentional or purely accidental--such is the uncertainty of Letts's mise-en-scene.
Another telling incidental detail is the prevalence of reggae music in the background. The Slits rehearse and squabble next to a poster of the Jimmy Cliff classic THE HARDER THEY COME (1973), and an Afro-Caribbean gent tries to instruct one of the kids in the island beat (in 1997 Letts co-directed
a musical drama DANCE HALL QUEEN in Jamaica). Two punk girls say that just as reggae spreads worthy messages of peace and brotherhood among blacks, so does punk have meaning and purpose in their culture. Then follows a punk ode to masturbation -- so there you are. Songs include: "God Save the
Queen," "Liar," "Pretty Vacant," "Seventeen," "New York" (The Sex Pistols); "Bad Shape," "Carcass," (Siouxsie and the Banshees); "Chinese Rocks," "Born to Lose" (Heartbreakers); "Fuck Off," "Cream in My Jeans" (Wayne County and the Electric Chairs); "White Riot," "1977" (The Clash); "Cranked Up
Really High" (Slaughter and the Dogs); "Walking in the City" (Generation X); "Oh Bondage Up Yours" (X Ray Spex). (Profanity, substance abuse, nudity.)
Cast & Details See all »
- Released: 1978
- Rating: NR
- Review: Just as Abraham Zapruder's amateur film isn't very good cinema but vital to the study of the JFK assassination and by extension world history, THE PUNK ROCK MOVIE is a crude but notable record of the brief, brutal heyday of Britain's punk-rock movement. T… (more)