Last night at the Brattle Theatre I saw Punk’s Not Dead (2007) a fun documentary about the music, the lifestyle and the culture that is punk. Starting with a history lesson, the movie takes us back to the birth of punk – the Clash, the Sex Pistols, the Ramones and many, many others. Punk democratized music because just about anyone could form a band. This do-it-yourself mentality carried over into producing punk records, creating punk record labels, publishing punk magazines, forming networks of performance spaces for punk bands (usually someone’s basement), and finding places for all the bands to stay while on the road (usually someone’s floor). There’s no division between the bands and the fans.
Fast forward fifteen years. To the outside world, punk is long gone but then returns with a vengeance. Foreshadowed by Bad Religion and Operation Ivy, Nirvana stormed the charts and set the stage for more commercially successful punk acts like Green Day. Of course, punk never went away and many of the bands from the 70’s continue to perform and record right up to this day including the Sub-Humans (one of whom is this movie’s most interesting commentator), the appropriately named UK Subs (two band members discuss the band’s many lineup changes) and the Adicts who still have the same lineup they started with in 1975. These bands talk about growing old and raising families while still living the punk lifestyle (with cute images of their children rocking out).
And then there’s punk’s third generation, one that is labeled “pop punk” at best and includes bands like Good Charlotte and Sum 41. Older punks criticize these bands for going for image over substance, saying that punk is more than colored spiky hair and jumping up & down in rhythm. Always contrary, other older punks are just fine with these younger bands doing there own thing. Didn’t the Buzzcocks sing of love (the documentary then shows evidence that love songs are more common than many punks would like to admit)? Still, the spirit of punk is alive in kids 13-15 years old, forming bands and playing a house party in Echo Park, CA or in numerous places around the world where punk thrives.
Love songs or not, the heart of punk it politics. One interviewee said that “punkers are just hippies with teeth” as they take on the government, big business, and the norms of society. Yet there’s still a lot of controversy. Is a punk song in a car commercial a sign of punk success in working its way into greater society or is it selling out? If corporate sponsors help bring your tour to a greater listening audience is that a betrayal of punk ethics or is it just taking money from the man?
There are no easy answers to these or any other questions. The movie is overly ambitious in trying to cover punk from every angle and will probably disapoint some diehards while confusing some of the uninitiated. Despite all that there are a lot of clever, funny, and insightful bits and best yet some rocking good music. So I liked it, and if you disagree, feck ya!