Making a connection through punk rock
The documentary subgenre known by some as "punkology" is a study in paradox. What can a teenager with multiple piercings and a Green Day T-shirt learn from interviews with aging punk elders that he or she can't get by playing the first Ramones album? The music defines itself and everything that surrounds it; all else is extraneous wankery.
Which doesn't or shouldn't stop a movie like "Punk's Not Dead" from trying. Susan Dynner's overview of 30 years of assaultive noise is loving and provocative, but the title should come with a question mark. Do modern bands like Sum 41 and Good Charlotte bear any resemblance to the safety-pinned revolutionaries of 1977? Can punk rock coexist with corporate sponsorship? Is a flaming-red Mohawk still a blow against the empire when Mom can buy you one at the mall?
These are legitimate questions that address the ways artistic movements sustain energy and honesty over the long haul, and they mirror punk's own identity crises. Fittingly, Dynner doesn't come up with a definitive answer. Structured very loosely along chronological lines, "Punk's Not Dead" takes core samples from musical forefathers, mid-period bands, and snotty young kids, building a jangly, contradictory mosaic as it goes.
The funniest clips show the ruling culture of the mid-'70s panicking at punk's rabid nihilism. Jack Klugman on "Quincy" describes the music as "a killer," while Phil Donahue solemnly asks a teenage Sex Pistols fan "Why do you look so bizarre?" Former Black Flag frontman Henry Rollins allows that punk did "make 'Frampton Comes Alive' look pretty pale in comparison."
Dynner stops dutifully at the expected way stations -- the '80s hardcore resurgence; the early '90s grunge explosion, when Nirvana absorbed the scene's energy; the commercial rise of Green Day, Rancid, Offspring, and blink-182 in the past decade -- but it regularly backs away from history to circle around to today's groups and whether they can even be called punk.
Depends upon who's asked. One amusing and revealing sequence shows a woman angrily describing Sum 41 as sellouts outside one of their concerts until she realizes she's talking to the band itself, at which point she becomes a moonstruck fan. Captain Sensible, of goth/punk pioneers The Damned, insists "punk rock should be alarming, disgraceful," before mooning the camera. By contrast, a member of Rancid shrugs, "Who am I to say a 16-year-old with a guitar isn't punk?"
Jennifer Finch, a former member of L7, makes the appropriate distinction: "True punk hasn't been commercialized, but the look has been." Someone else notes that green hair has no meaning if it doesn't scare your parents, and there's a simmering disgust throughout with the way the pop mainstream tames its rebel fringes by turning them into harmless style statements. Says one aging musician, "These are the parents who were throwing apples at the punkers across the quad in high school, but now it's 'cute' because their kid's doing it."
"Punk's Not Dead" doesn't exactly neglect the music, but Dynner's more interested in how that music served as a bridge for disaffected kids to connect with their anger and with each other. Three decades of punk history allows today's groups to connect with their progenitors, too, but that's a moot point. The film ends with a roster of young bands erupting all over the globe -- new freshets of din gloriously unconcerned with the old. Do they want fame? Someday, maybe. For now, they just want to play as loudly as possible.