Directed by Don Letts (Capital Entertainment DVD)
Let's be honest, shall we? The world needs another documentary about the origins of Punk Rock like the American South needs another hurricane. Still, even as the genre approaches its hotly debated thirtieth birthday, the exhumation continues. To the credit of filmmaker Don Letts, himself a veteran of the original British Punk scene and erstwhile Reggae archivist, his latest documentary, Punk: Attitude, at least tries to be all-inclusive in attempting to encapsulate the amorphous cultural movement.
Wider in scope than Letts' first film on the subject, the rather clinically titled Punk Rock Movie (1978), Punk: Attitude smartly dissects the cross-pollination between the fledgling CBGB's scene in New York City and its effects on its counterpart in London (deftly tip-toeing through a mine field in terms of declaring who actually "started" Punk Rock).
Letts takes an oral history approach and lets various Punk luminaries -- from former Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones and proto-Gothic chanteuse Siouxsie Sioux through notorious Punk scribe Legs McNeil and ex-Black Flag vocalist/renaissance man Henry Rollins -- gingerly contradict each other in terms of who fired the first shot. Refreshingly, Letts gamely throws a bone to Punk Rock's immediate offspring. Where nine out of every ten documentaries and purportedly authoritative books on the subject limply imply that nothing of interest happened in the 1980s (depicting a yawning gap of inactivity between the messy implosion of the Sex Pistols and the rise of Nirvana), Punk: Attitude details the faltering genre's fragmentation by the end of the 1970s between working-class sensibilities and art-school aesthetics, resulting in the births of Hardcore, Oi, No Wave and Post-Punk. As such, Letts tracks down individuals such as Roger Miret of Agnostic Front, Ray Cappo of Shelter, Keith Morris of the Circle Jerks, Glenn Branca of the Theoretical Girls, and even the super-reclusive James Chance of the Contortions to weigh in on these crucially influential yet comparatively unsung scenes.
Punk: Attitude initially aired earlier this year on the IFC channel; the newly released DVD comes with a second disc of extras, most notably a mini-documentary about the Los Angeles Punk scene directed by the fabulously monikered Dick Rude. For those unfamiliar with the estimable Mr.Rude, he played Otto's eminently quotable pal, Duke, in Repo Man. Other featurettes exhaustively extrapolate on Punk's effects on gender equality, fashion, culture, and beyond. Again, Letts's handling of the vast wealth of material is impressive, but bitter, pedantic Punks will shudder at one or two oversights. For example, in one segment where Henry Rollins rapturously extols the merits of Ian Mackaye's seminal pre-Minor Threat Washington D.C. band, the Teen Idles, Letts displays an album cover by late-'90s Nashvillian also-rans the Teen Idols. Elsewhere, Letts cites Let's Start a War...Said Maggie One Day by the Exploited as being "recently released." As the Thatcher-baiting title should have suggested, the album was actually released in 1983. These are small quibbles to be sure, but when you're trying to tackle a subject as unwieldly and hotly debated as the origins of Punk Rock, every little factoid counts in the struggle for credibility. The packaging's rather uninspired, stereotype-reinforcing cover art doesn't help matters. To be fair, the British edition swapped the image of the mohawk for a more emphatic, universally understood image that is much more in-keeping with the Punk ethos, an extended middle finger. - Alex Smith
Purchase thru AmazonMr. Smith is a native New Yorker who lives in downtown Manhattan with his wife and daughter, works for Time Magazine, and writes for The New Yorker and other periodicals.