Punk: How cinema ignored something so loud

by

Special To The Japan Times

Once upon a time, Hollywood was good at co-opting and selling youth culture. When rock ‘n’ roll and biker gangs came along in the 1950s, the studios came up with generational totems like “Blackboard Jungle” and “The Wild Ones.” Beatlemania spawned “A Hard Days Night” and “Yellow Submarine,” while the hippies flocked to films like “The Graduate” and “Easy Rider.” Disco fueled “Saturday Night Fever” and hip-hop “Boyz n the Hood.”

Yet “Green Room,” the new survival-horror film about a touring punk band besieged by neo-Nazi skinheads, is notable for being the only commercially successful film to be specifically set in the punk subculture, despite coming some three decades after the heyday of hardcore. While the rock ‘n’ roll Hall of Fame is loaded with punk bands (The Clash, the Ramones, et al.) and the retro music docs are too numerous to count, punk left barely a ripple on the big screen.

Looking at the cinema of the era (late ’70s to mid-’80s) you can find hints of it, like the skinhead hitman in “Diva” (1981) or the street extras in future-dystopian Los Angeles in “Blade Runner” (1982). Mostly, however, the movies just used punks as the butt of a joke, like the switchblade-wielding louts in “The Terminator” (1984) and its iconic “Your clothes. Give them to me. Now!” scene. Everyone hated punks, right?

Punk made no sense to Hollywood, whose value system of beauty, fame and mass appeal was antithetical to punk’s embrace of shock, egalitarianism and deliberate repellence. It’s hard to recall now the fear and loathing that punk inspired well into the ’80s, where dressing a certain way almost certainly meant you would be attacked on the streets. Hollywood may not have understood much about punk, but it did know it spelled trouble.

Even the Sex Pistols, whose brilliant strategy of fame through provoking media outrage has been co-opted by everyone from Madonna to Donald Trump, were frustrated in their attempts to get a movie made. Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren flew out to LA to drum up interest, and at one point, B-movie director and breast-fetishist Russ Meyer (of “Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!,” 1965) was attached to the project, with a screenplay by — believe it or not — film critic Roger Ebert. But these two vile old “tosspots” were ditched after a confrontational meeting with singer Johnny Rotten. A second script was commissioned and again tossed, later being made by director Jonathan Kaplan as the coming-of-age drama “Over the Edge,” notable for being Matt Dillon’s debut.

Eventually Julien Temple, a National Film School student living in a west London squat, would make the Situationist-influenced Sex Pistols’ film that McLaren wanted, presenting punk as one giant exercise in manipulation. Yet by the time the mockumentary “The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle” opened in 1980, bassist Sid Vicious was dead, McLaren was being sued by the band and was barely on speaking terms with Temple; it was an anticlimax like no other. (Temple, at least, would go on to have a fruitful career with rock docs such as “The Filth and The Fury,” while his actress daughter Juno now plays a ’70s proto-punk band’s aspiring manager in HBO series “Vinyl.”)

The Ramones, for their part, appeared in a movie produced by B-movie king Roger Corman, “Rock-n-Roll High School,” which comes off entirely pre-punk in look and attitude — a “Blackboard Jungle” for ’70s teenage wasteland. In fact, Cheap Trick — a band representing everything that punks hated about flouncy arena rock — was supposed to star, but it was too pricey for the notoriously cheap Corman; the Ramones played gigs at night after filming during the day to pay for their own hotel rooms. While the movie seems like a goofy relic nowadays, it also seemed that way when released in 1979. Even bassist Dee Dee Ramone called it “the kiss of death,” describing the movie as bringing “the group down one level, to stupidity,” which is really saying something.

In the absence of films that spoke directly to the punk subculture, other films were adopted by punks for having the right attitude, notably Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” (1976), with its grim view of urban decay and a mentally unstable, nihilistic antihero who sported a Mohican long before it was a thing. Robert De Niro’s soul-dead monologues as loner cabbie Travis Bickle almost sound like blueprints for punk lyrics: “All the animals come out at night … sick and venal. … Someday a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets.” Add three chords and that could be Fear or GBH.

By the ’80s, Thatcher/Reagan conservatism was ascendant, vapid MTV pop ruled the airwaves and Hollywood’s idea of youth rebellion was Kevin Bacon in “Footloose.” Only two directors managed to sneak punk-themed projects into the cinemas: Penelope Spheeris with “Suburbia” and Alex Cox with “Repo Man,” both released in 1984, but neither broke into the mainstream.

“Suburbia” grew out of Spheeris’ cult hit “The Decline of Western Civilization” (1981), a jaw-dropper of a documentary that peered into LA’s misfit hardcore scene. With the ubiquitous Corman again producing, Spheeris strove to show the real sense of community at a punk “crash house” full of runaways known as T.R. (The Rejected), though Corman insisted on some sex or violence every 10 minutes. “Suburbia” hits a couple of false notes, but Spheeris’ decision to cast real punks, not actors — including future Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bassist Flea and his pet rat — gives it an undeniable edge; it remains the best portrait of peak hardcore, sympathetic to the punks without romanticizing their cockroach-infested squalor.

Where “Suburbia” was a movie about punk, “Repo Man” simply was punk. Like “Taxi Driver” it had suitably prole heroes — Emilio Estevez and Harry Dean Stanton as a couple of dudes who repossess deadbeats’ cars — the wired energy of methamphetamines, a soundtrack by artists like Iggy Pop and the Circle Jerks, an atomic Armageddon sub-plot, and line-in-the-sand dialogue like, “Ordinary f——— people. … I hate ’em!” (A clear shot at Robert Redford’s 1981 Oscar winning weepie, “Ordinary People.”)

Shot on a $1 million budget raised by Michael Nesmith, a former member of TV boy band The Monkees, “Repo Man” perfectly captures the fast-loud aesthetic and outsider mind-set of punk. Universal hated the movie so much they only opened it for a week, but it got a second chance in a Manhattan theater where it played for 18 months straight, eventually finding a wider audience on VHS. Cox went on to make the iconic punk romance “Sid and Nancy” in 1987, just in time to put a period on the punk era, as acid-house loomed in the U.K., while in the U.S., Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love were poised to repeat the film’s history as junkie king and queen of grunge rock.

Predictably, it’s the bad guys in “Green Room”, the skinheads — generally the most violent, racist, lumpenprole faction of punks — who have remained the most visible over the years, in films like Russell Crowe’s break-out “Romper Stomper,” “Made in Britain,” “American History X” and “This is England.” While punk itself could never be defined so narrowly (was it fashion, sound, lifestyle or attitude?), skins fit nicely with an old template: gang violence. The stereotype seems destined to linger.