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A Guide to Punk Music In Five Films

Highlighting five of the best fiction vehicles for punk cinema

Punk Music Films
Illustration by Steven Fiche
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    Punk Week continues with a special installment of our In Five Films series, which aims to offer a crash course and entry point into even the most daunting filmographies. Keep checking back throughout the week for interviews, lists, editorials and videos — it’s all things punk, all the time.

    Hollywood and rock music aren’t always a harmonious match; for every galvanizing concert film, heartfelt tribute, or electrifying biographical experiment, there are countless instances of one great twentieth-century art form sanitizing, misrepresenting, or otherwise screwing up another.

    Punk music, with its rebellious spirit and lack of reverence for institutions, seems especially fraught as a subject and difficult to capture in mainstream filmmaking. It might be easier to come up with a list of five movies that are punk-rock in spirit without much involving the music itself.

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    But as punk crashed onto the music scene, got old, got co-opted, turned mainstream, curdled into “alternative,” and reinvented itself, some films have captured its energy and ethos without completely ignoring the “rock” part of punk rock. That includes seminal documentaries like the Decline of Western Civilization series from Penelope Spheeris.

    Here, though, we’re focusing on five of the best fiction vehicles for punk cinema.


    The Punk Vision: Repo Man (1984)

    It might seem counterintuitive that the earliest movie on this list was released more than a decade after the formation of the Stooges, the New York Dolls, and the Ramones. But there’s also something fitting about the way Repo Man, the feature debut of English writer-director Alex Cox, takes place outside the immediacy of the punk-rock explosion.

    It’s probably no accident that it shares a release year with Suburbia, the fiction debut from Decline of Western Civilization’s Penelope Spheeris, and a seminal feature in its own right. Both Spheeris and Cox took a longer view of the subculture than a simple fad or musical movement. (That attention to detail is part of what makes Wayne’s World, the hit comedy Spheeris later directed, feel like more than just a big-screen SNL sketch.)

    Repo Man is better-known than Suburbia today, probably because of its weirdo sci-fi touches. Otto (Emilio Estevez), a disaffected Los Angeleno, is a young punk who’s already aging out of the scene, recently fired from his dead-end grocery-store job while some of his old friends trail through his life like ghosts, pulling liquor-store robberies.

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    Otto gets tricked into helping Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) to repossess some poor schmuck’s car, and a sleazy career is born: Bud teaches Otto the ropes of acting as, essentially, an authorized car thief, repossessing autos all around LA. The two men get mixed up in pursuit of a mysterious Chevy Malibu that contains evidence of alien invasion.

    This might sound like kind of a goof, and at times it plays like one. But within the movie’s irreverence lurks a real vision of a consumer-driven wasteland, at once saturated with tons of junk culture (at one point, Otto rattles off a list of popular television programs in impotent frustration) and utterly devoid of individuality (most of the characters eat and drink out of containers with generic white labels that say things like “food”).

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    Otto is already burnt out and going through the motions of respectable employment, which of course is not much different than thievery; the whole city is his dead end. With songs from Iggy Pop, Black Flag, The Plugz, FEAR, and the Circle Jerks (who also appear in the film), punk rock is the perfect soundtrack for this barren landscape.

    The Biopic: Sid & Nancy (1986)

    Alex Cox stayed in the punk milieu for his Repo Man follow-up with this bloody shard from the lives of Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman), the bassist from the Sex Pistols, and his American girlfriend Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb). Eschewing the rise-fall-rise rock-biopic narrative by necessity — both Vicious and Spungen were dead by 21 — Cox further blurs the line between music, subculture, and fandom.

    Vicious is more persona than musician, and with the help of their mutual drug habit, Spungen goes from fan to loose-cannon manager. Both of them seem to be chasing some idea of punk rock, notoriety, and/or oblivion that they can’t quite articulate; like Repo Man, it feels crucial that this movie was made well after punk’s glory days, which in this telling (where the other Sex Pistols disappear halfway through) ended as quickly as they began.

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    It’s harrowing stuff, but Cox, working with cinematographer Roger Deakins a few years into his transition from music videos to movies, locates beauty in their near-constant spiral, like the famous shot of the couple kissing against a dumpster, oblivious to the garbage raining around them. Oldman and Webb give performances so raw that the movie is often challenging to sit with, which feels like the most punk achievement of all in a subgenre that has skewed toward comfort and familiarity in the decades since.

    The Local Scene: SLC Punk! (1999)

    Matthew Lillard was a constant presence in late-’90s teen movies, but he never had a better showcase than this Sundance favorite, narrating a mid-’80s memoir of living the punk lifestyle in Salt Lake City, Utah. Music figures into SLC Punk!; a flashback scene toward the end is one of cinema’s best music-discovery moments, as a young Stevo’s buddy “Heroin” Bob turns their Dungeons & Dragons game and Rush allegiances upside down with a galvanizing new tape.

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    Still, writer-director James Merendino, working from his own youthful experiences in SLC, goes further. He spends a lot of time exploring punk from a sociological angle, as Stevo and Bob scuffle with the mods, rednecks, skinheads, and more. Lillard’s yammering style makes him the perfect raconteur to explain, sometimes straight to the camera, how all of this jockeying went down, and how Stevo (who hails from a solidly upper-middle-class family) found both solace and dissatisfaction in punk.

    It’s funny, rueful, conversational, and ultimately reflective about how our youth often passes through certain subcultures on the way to an uncertain destination. Merendino directed a follow-up, Punk’s Dead: SLC Punk 2, nearly 20 years later. Fans might be more interested in Lillard’s own 2010s contribution to punk cinema: Fat Kid Rules the World, a sort-of companion piece about a suicidal, overweight teenager who becomes a punk-rock drummer. (The DVD even has a deleted scene with Lillard reprising his Stevo role, as a guidance counselor to the young hero).

    The DIY Community: We Are the Best! (2014)

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    The crustiest, crankiest punks could probably find plenty to hate about this largely adorable coming-of-age movie from Sweden’s Lukas Moodysson; it’s about a trio of thirteen-year-old girls coming of age and playing music together, favoring slice-of-life details — lonely single moms, embarrassing quasi-bohemian middle-class parents — over visceral intensity.

    Yet the band formed by Bobo (Mira Barkhammar), Klara (Mira Grosin), and Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne) is about as DIY as it gets: They get together at a youth center, out of spite, with two-thirds of their members starting from basically zero musical experience. Their first composition, “Hate the Sport,” is a screed against gym class requirements — and, again, if that sounds too cute, the song and their playing of it has enough genuinely rough edges to feel more legit punk than plenty of experienced scenesters.

    There hasn’t really been a definitive movie chronicling the Riot Grrl movement, and We Are the Best! certainly isn’t it; it’s set in 1982, well before that movement was afoot. But it comes closer than the well-intentioned likes of Moxie, the recent Netflix teen movie about a zine revival, thanks to Moodysson’s intuitive understanding of how punk rock, at its best, can create a real sense of community — even if it’s among just a handful of people.

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    For a corollary that actually came out (albeit just barely) in 1982, see also Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains, a cult favorite that’s also about an all-girl punk band starting more or less from scratch — and co-stars members of the Sex Pistols and the Clash, among others. It’s a strange film that nonetheless has plenty to say about how sounds and images can be both co-opted and empowering.

    The Underbelly: Green Room (2016)

    Punk rock faces an unexpected last stand of sorts in Jeremy Saulnier’s thriller, which starts with a band scraping together a DIY tour of the Pacific Northwest, depicted with both tenderness and weariness. When the Ain’t Rights (Callum Turner, Joe Cole, Alia Shawkat, and the late, great Anton Yelchin) are mistakenly booked at a neo-Nazi bar and witness a horrific act of violence, they wind up trapped, with vicious brutes gathering to exterminate them. (Their steely leader is played, with chilling menace, by beloved Trekker Patrick Stewart.)

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    Green Room strangely and successfully merges genre thrills with a punk aesthetic; it’s both about punk rockers and pretty punk-rock in its tense, gnarly execution. This means that it’s also unsparing about the realistic survival rate in such a dire situation, tempering the pulpy violence and villains with its characters’ human frailty. And anyway, maybe the villains aren’t really so heightened after all; plenty of current events since the movie’s 2016 release have given the movie’s scrappy fighting spirit a stronger vicarious charge.

    Before the worst shit goes down, the Ain’t Rights gin up the nerve to cover the Dead Kennedys’ 1983 classic “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” to a club full of skinheads, knowing that it could endanger them — an act of rock-and-roll defiance that echoes with resonance.

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    Editor’s Note: To keep punk alive even after Punk Week, pick up our new “Punk Is Dead, Long Live Punk” shirt at the Consequence Shop.

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