The Punk rock genre is easily one of the most diverse music genres, and that’s largely because of how it spans so many different subgenres; like hardcore, post-punk, Taqwacore, and protopunk. Even today, punk continues to expand and remains a popular genre of music.
Much like any subculture there are often movies that try and capitalize on this genre- this includes both film and documentaries. For anyone who wants to get into this genre here are 14 essential punk films. Whether they’re proto-punk, movies that were made during the heyday of punk, or documentaries that capture the essence of the genre, these movies are essential for punk fans. However, seeing how this is a punk list there will not be any new wave movies; because that deserves a list all its own.
1. Repo Man (1984)
Starting off with one of the best representations of the punk movie genre, “Repo Man” following the exploits of Otto-an angry young punk in L.A- as he gets drafted to become a repo man; somebody who repossesses cars. Otto soon learns that life of a repo man is always intense, especially when the government and aliens are involved.
The thing that really makes this movie stand out is the fact that it’s a perfect blend of social satire, the L.A. punk culture, and science fiction- and how surprisingly these genres perfectly complement each other. The script by writer and director Alex Cox is fantastic, and is just chock full of memorable characters and extremely memorable quotes.
The acting and chemistry between Emilio Estevez and Harry Dean Stanton really make this movie work because of how genuine there interacts are- as it doesn’t help that these two actors are generally great actors.
Finally there’s the soundtrack, which features songs by bands like Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Iggy Pop, and The Plugz- these songs perfectly accompany this film, as well as lend themselves to the punk rock atmosphere.
“Repo Man” is the type of movie that bridges the gap between cult classic and regular classic, because this movie can honestly be both.
2. Urgh! A Music War (1982)
A legendary concert film from 1982 that features various punk, new wave, and post-punk bands; some of which includes bands like, Devo, Dead Kennedys, OMD, Gang of Four, Wall of Voodoo, The Police and many many more!
For beginning punk fans this movie is easily the best ways to get into the genre, as it features a smorgasbord of different and unique bands performing. Honestly, for anyone who wants to get into new bands this movie is certainly worth watching.
As this movie not only features notable bands like The Police, Joan Jett and the Dead Kennedys, but it also has a lot more obscure bands, like Surf Punks, the Au Pairs, Klaus Nomi, and of course Invisible Sex- a band so obscure that this movie was their only appearance.
“Urgh! A Music War” is an extremely entertaining concert film that is highly recommended for fans of music.
3. Times Square (1980)
Nicky and Pamela are two girls who run away from a mental ward onto the streets of New York City. These two girls soon get caught up in the punk lifestyle and form a band to go against Pamela’s strict parents. Meanwhile, their lives are under scrutiny by a radio DJ as the entire city of New York are listening in to what these two girls have to say.
“Times Square” might not be plot heavy- in fact a majority of the character development was removed in order to squeeze in more songs for the soundtrack- and while that is extremely disappointing at least there’s an incredible soundtrack that’s choke full of new wave and punk bands. The soundtrack features artists like The Ramones, The Cure, Talking Heads, Patti Smith and The Cars; to name a few.
There are a number of scene’s that make this movie memorable, such as the part where Nicky and Pamela are dancing down the streets of an early 80s 42nd street while ‘Life during Wartime’ by the Talking Heads is playing; while another notable scene features Pamela dancing at a sleazy club while the song, ‘The Night Was Not’ by Desmond Child and Rouge is playing. The music really lends itself to the movie, and often times makes a majority of the scenes better.
The backdrop of New York City could almost be its own character because of how it looks completely sleazy and is a time capsule for that era of New York. Actresses Trini Alvarado and Robin Johnson are very good in their roles as Nicky and Pamela- especially Robin Johson, which is sad to know that this was one of the few movies she starred in. Meanwhile, actor Tim Curry is always fantastic as he plays the local New York DJ.
“Times Square” is a fantastically underrated punk classic that could have really been something more if it wasn’t for the heavy studio interference.
4. Decline of the Western Civilization (1981)
Filmed during 1979 and 1980 this movie captures the often violent L.A. punk scene during the explosion of hardcore punk. Some bands that were featured include, X, Black Flag-before Henry Rollins joined- The Germs- months before Darby Crash killed himself- and Circle Jerks. Meanwhile there are interviews with actual punk kids from L.A, as well as interviews with the bands themselves.
“Decline of the Western Civilization” is a fascinating documentary that makes you feel like you’ve been transported right back to early 1980s L.A., and it doesn’t help that the grainy quality gives it that extra sense of punk.
The performances by bands like Black Flag and The Germs are top notch because of how director Penelope Spheeris captures these bands raw energy. Other bands like Circle Jerks and Fear are also pretty good- even though Fear taunts their audience with some rather hateful homophobic and sexist remarks; which they basically say just to rile up the audience.
However, the interviews in this movie are truly worth noting because of the grainy quality and how the kids that are being interviewed just seem so disfranchised and alienated; and the fact that their real people being interviewed just makes it feel so heartbreaking and real.
“Decline of the Western Civilization” is easily one of the best documentaries about punk. The raw energy of punk has never been better documented that it was during this film.
5. Kill Your Idols (2004)
“Kill Your Idols” is from 2004 and focuses on the underappreciated genre of No Wave- a short lived genre of music that existed in New York City from the late 70s and throughout the early 80s. The second half of this movie focuses on the then new wave of alternative bands from New York, and how these bands were influenced by the alternative bands from the past.
This documentary also features interviews from legendary New York No Wave artists like Lydia Lunch, Martin Rev, Thurston Moore, and Michael Gera. As well as interviews from modern bands like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Liars and Gogol Bordello.
“Kill Your Idols” weaves the alternative rock bands from the late 70s and early 80s with the modern alternative bands of the 00s, and these bands developed their sound from the bands of the past. Because of that you get a great sense of how the past influenced the present.
The parts when this documentary focuses on New York No Wave footage are truly worth watching due to their noisy, anti commercial sound. The No wave scene has really been undocumented since its inception back in the late 70s, and that’s disappointing, because No Wave is an extremely fascinating subgenre and this documentary certainly captures its ferocity.
6. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
“The Rocky Horror Picture Show” might not be the first film that anyone would generally associate with the punk genre, but if you examine this movie closer you might be able to see how much of an influence this movie had on the punk rock genre.
For those who are unfamiliar with this film, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” is about a couple whose car breaks down and are forced to take refuge in a strange castle. This castle is home to Dr. Frank N. Furter, a sweet transvestite from the Transsexual, Transylvania, who is building the perfect man.
The three things in this movie that most influenced the punk genre would be the music, the fashion, and the outsider appeal of this film.
Most of the music in this movie is based on the glam rock genre from the early 70s; but keep in mind that glam rock had a massive influence on the development of punk. Some songs like Sweet Transvestite, The Time Warp and Rose Tint My World have that spiky, almost punk like guitar that really make them sound pretty proto-punk.
However, the part that really makes this movie a pre-cursor to the punk genre is the fashion- as the fashion includes leather jacket and pin combos, outrageously different hair colors, and sequent jackets. The fashion just seems so punk looking that it’s hard to imagine this movie not having an influence on the genre.
Finally, the thing that really makes this movie vital for the punk genre is the outsider appeal that this movie has. The massive cult following is largely thanks to its generally un-mainstream look,and in some ways complements the un-mainstream view and sound of most punk rock. Regardless, this movie is completely essential, not only as a punk film, but also as a film in general.
7. American Hardcore (2006)
“American Hardcore” focused on the hardcore punk genre that developed from 1978 to1986; while also including a detailed look at the various hardcore punk scenes from places like Los Angeles and Washington DC. This documentary features rare concert footage, as well as actual interviews from hardcore greats, such as Greg Ginn and Henry Rollins from Black Flag, Ian MacKaye from Minor Threat, HR from Bad Brains, and Keith Morris from Black Flag and Circle Jerks- just to name a few.
This documentary is an insightful look into the American Hardcore Punk genre and gives an interesting look into the band members that were so important to the development of this genre of music. While certain people might associate hardcore punk as simply being mindless and pissed off, this documentary shows that many of the key figures in this genre were actually very intelligent people who had something to say.
“American Hardcore” gives a great look into this genre of punk, and while this documentary might leave out a couple of significant bands, like Dead Kennedys, Husker Du, and The Replacements, it certainly makes up for it by showing fantastic concert footage from bands like Bad Brains, The Adolescents, Black Flag, and Minor Threat.