The year is 1977. CBGB. Ramones. Sex Pistols. Mohawks, ragged clothes, crazy hair colors, leather jacket and boots. DIY. Three-Chord songs. Teen angst. Anarchy. Everywhere political tensions are growing – society is reaping the transformations that started in the 60’s, while the hippie revolution gains a more mature façade – and the anger felt by the neglected youth is channeled into what would become one of the most iconic movements in Rock’n’Roll History.
It was a movement that shaped a whole generation and although its origins can be placed in the underground music scene, it heavily influenced pop culture, music and values as we know today. Punk rock’s style and ideology has been imitated endless times and the attempts at reviving it still exist, but it was a time in History – not only in music, but in every social aspect – that cannot be repeated, and from that fact comes its special and unique quality.
Who lived it says it can never be repeated, but countless are the people – especially adolescents and young adults – who identify with its sense of freedom and rebellion to this day. One thing is certain: it is rather controversial to talk about a scene so filled with icons made to shock and subvert, when some people say it’s not at all about that, but about a way to live life, something that goes deeper and beyond any specific symbol (also related to a critical and political view on things).
This list features 15 movies that, somehow, deal with the questions surrounding the punk movement, in its primetime or today, be it in a direct manner or indirect, through the visual and narrative undertones that remind us of the 1977 revolution.
1. Jubilee (Derek Jarman, 1978)
A movie that features a plot where Queen Elizabeth I travels in time, to a post-punk England where nihilism and anarchy rule, has a guaranteed place in this list. The very title of this film is controversial, seeing that it refers to the 25th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II – which happened in 1977, casually, the accorded year of punk’s rising – in a subversive manner. The movie features many notorious figures from the punk movement, such as Adam Ant, Richard O’Brien and Wayne County.
Although some people thought the film was too pretentious and made for a small audience – because it clearly deals with many subjects that surpass the punk movement, such as political issues related to that specific period in England – it remains as one of the most interesting and unique portraits of this one-time movement, using not only the visuals and styles regarded as punk, but also a non-linear plot to go along with the ideology presented.
2. Suburbia (Penelope Spheeris, 1983)
Director Penelope Spheeris is known for her energetic trilogy “The Decline of Western Civilization”, where, in the first film, she documents a few of a plethora of bands that composed the punk and post-punk music scene in Los Angeles. “Suburbia” was released over a decade after that documentary, but it could very well be called a sequel, seeing that it continues to depict the lives and experiences of teenagers inside a punk lifestyle.
This movie tells the story of a group of teens, who mostly come from abusive and neglected households, living in a communal home and following their own ideals and rules as to what they believe life should be. Although the movie lacks in great performances, the fact that Spheeris casted non-actors only enhances the reality of the movie, which also presents us with a sensitive cinematography and inspiring punk references.
3. Hated: GG Allin & the Murder Junkies (Todd Phillips, 1993)
This documentary deals with one of the most controversial people related to the punk movement and surely one of the most controversial musicians of all time. GG Allin’s persona excels his music, that’s the main reason he is remembered to this day, as an aggressive and extreme person, rather than for his peculiar, but good nonetheless, career.
GG Allin stretched and trespassed whatever limits were set to punk rock through his performances onstage, which included indecent exposure, defecation, masturbation, self-injury and violent behavior towards the audience – an audience that knew anything could happen in his gigs.
This documentary directed by Todd Phillips – which curiously went on to direct “The Hangover” trilogy and other mainstream comedies – is an interesting take on the opinions and some aspects of GG Allin’s life and career, and if the film doesn’t idolize or demonize Allin, it at least gives us a curious insight of him. His relation to the punk movement is also controversial, while some think he was only after fame and notoriety, others say he’s the only true punk that has ever been in the public eye.
One thing is clear: he can be related to the ideals of the punk movement, which talk about freedom of expression and subversion of the established rules.
4. Rock’n’Roll High School (Alan Arkush, 1979)
The Ramones are one of the first bands that come to mind when we talk about punk rock music. Being from New York City, the band gained notoriety when they started to play at CBGB, a nightclub placed in an edgy neighborhood, where many punk bands made their first appearance.
Rock’n’Roll High School clearly follows the rock world marketing formula, the same one Elvis Presley used back in the 50’s, because somehow people want to see their favorite rock stars starring in musicals. In this case, the stars are the Ramones; therefore, we know it’s not going to be a conventional movie.
The movie took 21 days to shoot and the crew ran the entire production on a very low budget, but there were some famous filmmakers involved, such as Roger Corman and Joe Dante.
The plot follows a high school student (played by P.J. Soles) who is a huge fan of the Ramones and who has written a song for them, called “Rock’n’Roll High School”, while things conspire against her meeting the band. Actually, the plot is merely a vehicle for the band to perform their songs and show their unskilled acting, which turns to be fun in the end and one of the reasons this movie has become a cult classic since its release.
5. Sid and Nancy (Alex Cox, 1986)
Although Sid Vicious’ fellow band member and friend, John Lydon – and also the critics – disliked this adaptation completely and was offended by it, it’s undeniable that this movie was remarkable, being basically the only biopic we have on Sid Vicious’ short-lived life and his relationship with Nancy Spungen.
Vicious is still regarded as an uttermost symbol for everything punk rock stands for, and Gary Oldman’s performance captures his unique and almost innocent quality perfectly.
6. Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sharman, 1975)
Richard O’Brien’s creation was firstly a musical stage production, later transformed into a film, an unusual story that pays homage to early science-fiction and B horror movies, also featuring various visual and musical aspects of the punk rock movement, such as fishnet stockings, hairstyles and makeup, which makes the movie an artistic precursor to the 1977 revolution.
It’s innovative in its portrayal of alien transsexual Dr. Frank-N-Furter, in the most iconic role of Tim Curry’s career, its quirky mixture of horror, sci-fi, comedy and music and its provocative portrayal of sexuality. Initially a midnight movie, it later gathered one of the most massive cult-followings among non-mainstream movies and to this day it’s still remembered by fans all over the world, through annual conventions that celebrate the extremely original camp creation that it is.
7. Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains (Lou Adler, 1982)
Filled with nihilistic ideology, dark humor and a punk rock soundtrack, this Lou Adler production (which was also involved in Rocky Horror Picture Show) is one of a kind. Corinne Burns, played by Diane Lane, is the lead singer of “The Stains”, an all-girl band, and they take a shot at success by deciding to tour around the country with other more experienced bands, a washed-up metal band and a punk band (the leader of the punk one is Steve Jones, ex-guitarist from the Sex Pistols).
When they are disregarded as a band for not playing or singing well, Corinne puts on a more radical look and gains attention from the media, and the movie jokes around with that fact, how often musicians become more popular for their controversial opinions and acts than for their music, etc. and how the music business is filled with ups and downs, narcissism and competition.