Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Punk on Film

This intro should be quick and go to the point like a kick to the balls. The central rules of punk rock state that we need to be LOUD, FAST, RUDE, AND TAKE NO PRISONERS! Gabba Gabba Hey! It's Punk on Film!

Rock 'n' Roll High School (1979)
Director: Allan Arkush

The legendary producer Roger Corman came up with the idea of making money doing a Musical Comedy for teenagers, but initially thought to tap into the Disco craze of the time. Director Allan Arkush, however, had a longer sight and suggested to make a Rock Comedy. The seminal New York Punk band The Ramones were chosen as the leads, not because they were popular, but because they were cheap. But nevertheless, it was a match made in heaven. The brutal, to-the-point and black humour-filled Ramones lyrics fit like a leather jacket on a quickly paced comedy. Like The Ramones themselves, the film gained quite a large cult reputation through the years.

One of the most iconic things about the film is it's hand drawn poster, drawn in the style used in MAD Magazine. There are millions of small details and the overall image of total chaos. It's style would go on to be imitated in billions College comedies including Animal House, but with that one exception, rarely bettered. Arkush's film is also a lot like a movie parody comic on the pages of MAD would be. Jokes come thick and often, there's a lot of stuff going on at the background, and the film is filled with colorful characters. The Ramones themselves can't act worth a penny, but happily they mostly just need to look cool and do their unique, manic performances.

Ramones audience.
The plot involves a new, strict principal Miss Togar (Mary Woronov) taking over Vince Lombardi High School. She believes that at the root of the student's disobedience is their love for loud Rock 'N Roll, and thus begins a crusade to ban the music altogether. This insidious plot includes forbidding any students attending a concert by The Ramones. Ramones' No. 1 fan, the rebellious Riff Randall (P.J. Soles) has other ideas, and sneaks into the concert with her friend Kate Rambeau (Dey Young). She gains the Ramones' attention because she's written a song for them called Rock 'N Roll High School. The star-struck Randall then begins to plot an uprising in the school with the help of her favorite band.

I like very much that most of the film's most visible and capable characters are all women. Soles is a convincing lead, being at the same time cunning, rebellious, a little naïve and cute enough to be lovable. Most of the film's men can't keep up with her, including the hapless Tom Roberts (Vincent Van patten), who would like to get in her pants, although she only has eyes for The Ramones. The scenes between Tom and his suave nerd mentor Eaglebauer (the always-silly Clint Howard) venture dangerously close to common teen comedy areas, yet Arkush as well as the perfect casting manage to keep things interesting. With such a big cast, Arkush (as well as uncredited co-director Joe Dante) manage to build comical, yet believable arcs and have enough focus on each one. With its machine gun fast comedy timing, it's a clear predecessor of the ZAZ comedies such as Airplane! and The Naked Gun. And there's also plenty of rocking scenes, which made the film's soundtrack popular to this day. This film has truly earned its cult reputation.

★★★★ (Film)
★★★★★ (Music)

The Great Rock 'N Roll Swindle (1980)
Director: Julien Temple

Malcolm McLaren managed to put Punk on the map (as well as name the whole phenomena) by discovering The Sex Pistols, the original UK punk rock band. Of course, punk's roots go way back longer than that but still The Pistols' effect on music can't be overemphasized. As The Pistols weren't a natural unit, and McLaren made sure that they hated each other, too, their reign would not last long. But since McLaren loved money, he wanted to put his protegés on film fast. The project was originally to be directed by boobsploitation maestro Russ Meyer. Meyer didn't last long with the quarreling Pistols, and left due to creative differences. The aspiring young documentarist Julien Temple was assigned to pick up the pieces.

The reason I dwell so deep into the process of making this film is because it explains why the result is such a confusing mess. The former title "Who Killed Bambi" (as well as presumably its plot) was scrapped, but the film still features a lengthy sequence where Sid Vicious plays a movie theatre usher singing the title over and over again for no reason. Instead, the film chronicles the history of The Pistols in a way that includes animations, dwarves, revolting peasants, McLaren in a fetish rubber suit and other quite random material. Although it's hard to make heads or tails about the film as a whole, it is undeniable that individual scenes in the film manage to be striking, odd, and way off the viewer's comfort zone. So, in a way, it represents the Pistols' music quite well. But Temple would do better later on with a full-scale documentary The Filth And The Fury.

★★ 1/2 (Film)
★★★★★ (Music)

Rude Boy (1980)
Director: Jack Hazan, David Mingay

Another major UK punk band who opted for the pseudo-documentary route was The Only Band That Matters, The Clash. Rude Boy follows one young punk, played by Ray Gange. He quits his job at a Porno Store when he sees The Clash perform at a small club at London. So he decides to become a roadie for them. Along the way, the band gets bigger, whereas Rude Boy has some ideas that Clash with the views of The Clash members themselves and as he isn't much good for the technical side, either they grow a dislike to him, but still allow him to hang around. The film is framed against some of the events surrounding England from 1977-80, such as the rise of Thatcherism, riots, parades against racism and The Clash's career.

Sadly, for everything the film has going for it, the mostly improvised film is quite boring. Gange's main character doesn't quite manage to captivate the audience in following him, and the grey, slow documentary style fits kitchen sink dramas better than a punk film. Inter-cut within it are various documentary pieces without comments. We would need something as fierce and in-your-face as The Clash was at the peak of their power. Lucky, then for the live performances of the band, which are so good that one can't take one's eyes off them even to blink. It is only a representation what it was like to go to a Clash show at the turn of the 70's and 80's, yet it is still a lot more fun than most actual live performances today. The energy, the enthusiasm, the skill, the message. All is top notch! Luckily, the DVD of the film features the porn-like feature of skipping the plot altogether and watching only The Clash.

★★ (Film)
★★★★★★ (Music)

Urgh! A Music War (1981)
Director: Derek Burbridge

Of course punk didn't stay pure for long and soon developed further into New Wave and various other music genres. The strength of punk was that anyone could do it, even freaks and weirdoes. That's why many punk and New wave bands did make a big deal of their differences and came up with various gimmicks. Also, as The Clash proved, punk and New Wave were extremely adaptive with also other style of music, be it reggae, rockabilly, funk, or even the dreaded disco. This British concert movie features a good cavalcade of various punk-spunned acts. The variety doesn't cover everything, but it gives a good idea of how much difference these bands developed.

The film's bands are being led by The Police, one of the biggest names of that time. Sting's band begins and ends the film with their hit songs. Other bands and artists featured include Oingo Boingo, Echo and the Bunnymen, Klaus Nomi, Joan Jett, Devo, the Gang of Four, 999, X and The Dead Kennedys. The stage acts aren't shot with any special innovation, and mostly take a step back to just feature the bands doing their thing. Not even the concert venues are common to all, since the film has been shot during two months in New York, Paris, London and Los Angeles. Even though the film is quite long, I don't think any viewer will be entirely satisfied with it, wanting to remove some acts and emphasize other styles or bands. But as it is, it's a good period piece of what was happening in music at the start of the 1980's.


The Punk Syndrome (Kovasikajuttu, 2012)
Directors: Jukka Kärkkäinen, Jani-Petteri Passi

But hey, punk really isn't actually dead yet! Its flame is being kept alive by the last people you would expect, a group of developmentally disabled Finns. But they won't let their disability stop them. The band Name Day, or Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät to use it's finnish title, consists of four adamant, strong personalities that assume quite familiar band roles. There's the band leader, Pertti, a troubled songwriter who suffers from mood swings. There's the political guitarist, Sami, who campaigns for the Finnish Center Party, and often awakens anger in his band mates. The bass player Kari is the ladies' man, but figures he's done enough fooling around and plans to get hitched with his girlfriend. And the drummer Toni is an awkward young man taking his first steps towards freedom and moving away from his parents' house.

The quartet announces in their songs rebellion of having to live in an institution, fight spirit against the authorities, and also mundane stuff like having a cup of coffee and taking a dump. The documentary follows each of the players in their everyday life and their own problems, and on their first European tour. The film raises some questions about how the society treats the handicapped, but it isn't preachy and doesn't rub the viewer's face with them. One also gets a few good laughs at the silly stuff the punk rockers are up to, such as the race Kari loses when he drops his pants, or when the group gets a little too excited with the strip club windows in Hamburg's Reeperbahn.The groups's chief assistant Janne is left a little to the background, but he's having to deal with four rock stars who each have their own wants and needs, as well as having to deal with becoming a father. But the spotlight is kept promptly on the band, and rightfully so. They are people to easily identify with, to laugh and cry with. The biggest strength of the film is the same as with the band: it feels very real, as opposed to staged. It's a real slice of life with its ups and downs, highs and lows.


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