Every social movement needs a soundtrack, and, despite widespread reports of apathetic youth and political stasis, the twilight years of the twentieth century were rife with both. The indie movements of the time – punk, new wave, grunge, rave culture – were equal parts music and lifestyle, a noisy grab during free fall at something dark, aggressive, and meaningful to counter the sunny sickness of America’s middlebrow culture. Five documentaries offer flawed but fascinating tours of these movements.
In New York, punk was also art and poetry, with rockers like Patti Smith and Television creating music that was as much about providing an artistic and lifestyle model as delivering rhythm kicks to bored scenesters. The Blank Generation (1976), directed by Amos Poe and Ivan Kral, mixes quasi-live performances with interviews based on the New York incarnation of art-punk. On the same DVD is Dancin’ Barefoot (1995), both an update and a stroll through the same history as seen through the eyes of Patti Smith collaborator Kral, with Smith getting the lion’s share of footage and commentary.
Blank Generation has considerable cachet as a contemporary record of that tumultuous time. Performers caught “live” at the Temple of Punk, CBGB’s, include Smith, Television, Tuff Darts, Wayne (later Jayne) County, Blondie, the Ramones, Johnny Thunders, and more obscure talents like Harry Toledo, the Marbles, the Miamis, the Shirts, and the Heartbreakers. Musical highlights include a sizzling “Gloria” by the Patti Smith Group; a pre-op Wayne County’s crazed genderfuck “Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl?” (she looks like a punked-out Phyllis Diller in fright wig and trash-bag dress); and Blondie’s sweet revamping of the Shangri-La’s tune “Out in the Streets.”
One problem, which some viewers will find hard to overcome, is that the live music isn’t remotely synched to the visuals; Ivan Kral shot 8mm footage of the bands in their prime but his camera lacked sound. For this documentary, Poe and Kral simply added live tracks to the visuals. So it’s more than a little jarring to hear the soundtrack playing “Psycho Killer” while David Byrne is singing god knows what. And some of the groups haven’t aged well – it’s not hard to understand why nobody remembers the Miamis or the Shirts – but the film’s rough editing and grainy black-and-white photography nicely evoke the grungy pleasures of the scene.
Twenty years after The Blank Generation, Kral shot an autobiographical documentary for Czech television that’s as much a paean to Patti Smith as a retrospective of Kral’s career. Dancin’ Barefoot opens with testimonials by Bono, David Byrne (who just nods dementedly), and others who pay tribute to this minor player. Some of the same footage from Blank Generation is seen in Dancin’ Barefoot, with the added frisson of recent interviews with Iggy Pop, Debbie Harry, Lenny Kaye, Chris Stein, and other punk royalty. They recall the scene in enticingly gossipy detail. Johny Ramone bitches about CBGB’s, whose owner had an open-door policy for groups but wouldn’t even give them a free beer. Chris Stein complains about Patti Smith’s “bad writing” and “bad vibes” – though this is one of the few negative comments in the film about her. (Iggy Pop does note ruefully that when she suddenly quit, as major success beckoned, “she stranded her band.”) Smith devotees will find this a crucial buy; it’s loaded with rare performance footage and interviews. Punk historians, too, will appreciate the composite portrait of how the scene evolved, CBGB’s role, and the forces – often self-generated – that caused so many of the bands to self-destruct.
The West Coast scene was more raw and ragged than its New York counterpart, judging from Rage: 20 Years of Punk Rock West Coast Style, put together by actor Scott Jacoby and Michael Bishop. Again a mix of historical and contemporary footage and interviews, the film (running a mere 60 minutes) focuses on a handful of legendary figures from the movement: Jack Grisham of TSOL, Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys, Gitane DeMone of Christian Death, Keith Morris of the Circle Jerks, and a few others. (Fans of the many other pioneers of L.A. punk, such as the Dils, X, etc., may be annoyed by their absence.) Duane Peters of US Bombs offers as good a manifesto-in-miniature for punk as any we’ve heard: “When I was a kid I just knew I was pissed off – it was a fuckin’ angry life till I found punk rock.”
Despite the implied peace in his statement, Peters, like some of his confreres here, remains angry, his anger continuing to drive him and keep him performing, unlike so many punks who o.d.’d or took a job at Kinko’s. Jack Grisham seems equally conflicted, proclaiming his refusal to compromise while lamenting the lack of interest by the mainstream. Nonetheless, there’s much more going on here than a miserable backward glance. Gitane DeMone talks intriguingly about all the sex going on at punk clubs (“on the sidelines”), the rituals (letting a candle melt on your hand during the course of the evening), and her own sometimes dicey situation as a “very aggressive female” in a male-dominated scene. Jello Biafra is his usual articulate self. Best of all is Keith Morris, who keeps the faith without seeming pretentious or bitter. He spouts home truths dressed in a cowboy hat, psycho-sunglasses, and a gray wig that looks like it was pulled off a dead bag lady. Despite his outré look, Morris is a model of Zen equanimity: “I come from the working class and you do what you do and you get whatever reward you get and be happy with that.” Besides a wealth of performances in the film proper, the DVD has several bonus songs: Jack Gisham’s “Spit Up the Rage,” Gitane DeMone’s “Solitary Wars,” and the Dead Kennedy’s “Too Drunk to Fuck.” A photo gallery is also included.
Punk per se ended when its style was absorbed by MTV and regurgitated by lame parodists like Green Day. But the spirit has remained in the D.I.Y. indie movement, though “movement” may be overreaching when referring to so many groups scattered in time (throughout the 90s) and geography. Justin Mitchell’s Songs for Cassavetes chronicles a handful of these groups, concentrated mostly in the Pacific Northwest and, to a lesser extent, in California.
Inspired by a quote from filmmaker John Cassavetes (“In this country, people die at the age of 21. They die emotionally at 21, maybe younger. My responsibility as an artist is to help them past 21.”), this documentary features performances by minor cult groups like the Peechees, Sleater-Kinney (voted “Best Rock Band” by Time Magazine), Some Velvet Sidewalk, the Hi-Fives, Dub Narcotic Sound System, Tullycraft, Unwound, Further, Henry’s Dress, and the Make-Up. This is probably the only single source for live performances by these groups, and as such is an important addition to the aficionado’s library. However, the combination of often forgettable music with clueless interviews makes it clear why most of the groups have faded (or will) into oblivion. There’s little that’s new in their observations (“I was into music because it felt good”), and some of them seem joyless, even bitter as they describe the process of not making it commercially. Dub Narcotic Sound System’s Calvin Johnson is typical, saying “It doesn’t matter what’s going on in the mainstream” while also bitching endlessly about the mainstream’s failure to accommodate the new sounds of his group and the others in the film.
Songs for Cassavetes is clearly a labor of love, and there are some nice moments, as when members of the Hi-Fives, more grounded than many of the bands here, talk wistfully about not being able to leave their day jobs to tour with Green Day. The black-and-white cinematography nicely captures the feel of the music, as does location shooting at such places as L.A.’s now-defunct club Jabberjaw and the streets of towns such as Olympia, Washington, that have created much of the sound. A bonus on the DVD is a 26-minute radio interview/video montage section featuring the personalities in the film and other members of the national underground music community.
One of the underlying themes of punk and its derivatives is how to create community in a culture that seems determined to kill it. The inevitable tribal impulses of youth would seem a perfect match for such strivings, but punk – and the indie rock movement in general – has remained just below the radar screen, visible mainly in the small urban clusters that grew up around particular groups or clubs. John Reiss’s Better Living Through Circuitry documents a more fleshed-out and popular paradigm for community: the techno-rave scene!
Raves have been around since the 1980s, the culmination of a number of bubbling social forces: the modern primitive movement (with its interest in world cultures), the “happenings” of the 1960s, new age-ism, rap’s attention to scratch and dub, easy access to cheap club drugs, and the “digital revolution.” In their present incarnation, they’re sometimes surprisingly vast gatherings of revelers – in London, an outdoor rave attracted 1.5 million people – who try to work themselves into a kind of trance state through a combination of dancing, drugs, and the orgasmic dissolution of individual consciousness into the group.
Better Living Through Circuitry is a loud and lively survey of the scene, with techno music and its variations mixed with interviews with the DJ’s, the groups, the music, and the ravesters. There are strong intellectual underpinnings to these events. DJ Spooky, whose statement that he majored in philosophy and French lit isn’t hard to believe, says, “Sampling is like ancestor worship in a way; you’re reconfiguring the records that stuck in your memory.” A member of the group Electric Skychurch says part of the attraction is the inability of mainstream culture to commodify it: “They can’t control it; they can’t sell it.” Counterculture veteran Genesis P-Orridge, looking like a sinister old auntie in heavy mascara and ’60s go-go girl hairstyle, sees the techno-rave movement as supremely important and threatening. “It’s a demonstration of an idea – and the idea is a way of life,” he says.
The film doesn’t skip the controversial aspects of raves – the deaths by overdose constantly invoked by mainstream media – but balances them by showing the pleasures of these events and the enthusiasm of their creators and participants. This “way of life” trumps both the punk and indie scenes in general because it’s not tied to a narrow musical form. Music is a crucial component, but it’s essentially background noise for a wide-ranging move toward human liberation. The irresistible lure of this modern version of an ancient model of community, flourishing far from the excesses of consumer capitalism, is summarized with bubbly charm by a budding ravester: “Everybody came up to me and they were hugging me and talking to me and giving me bracelets and I was just, ‘I want to go here forever! I don’t want to leave!’” The DVD’s bonuses include 5.1 Dolby Digital surround mix, filmmaker’s commentary, virtual flyer gallery, outtakes, and additional interviews and music.