Sunday, July 10, 2005

Punk: Attitude (schmattitude)

OK, since I made a quick trash of it, I figured I'd write a longer review as a make-good.

I have no doubt that future cultural historians and music cognoscenti will appreciate this competent and fairly broad-sweeping history of the original punk "movement" of the 1970s. But I have to say, as a forty-something who was "there" at the end of the 1970s, there's something unnerving and vaguely depressing to seeing a bunch of fifty- and sixty- somethings waxing nostalgically about their great good old days. I mean, my god, weren't we making fun of the hippies for growing up and going mainstream back in the day? There's nothing more unpunkrock in some ways than a documentary film about punk.

Come to think of it, I think punk may be safely said to have died the instant they started filming it, and Letts' own 'The Punk Rock Movie" was the original culprit. Taking the DIY attitude and transforming it into the mindscreen of the cinema, with all its implications for mass consumption, is a way not so much of preserving the original punk spirit as diluting it.

This is to say, that if anybody has a right to make a film about the scene way-back-when, it's the old-school Letts. (Although it was a bit awkward when he manages to let some of his interviewees refer to him in the third person.) As a documentary, it's a standard mix of stand-up interviews and old stills and footage from the period, which tells the "story" with the reflective blinkers of thirty years of hindsight. So I can't fault this as a movie qua movie.

Whoever takes credit for originating the phrase, "Talking about music is like dancing about architecture", they had it right. I had a hard time finishing watching this movie not because it was a poor telling of the tale -- far from it, my memories coincide with it exactly -- but because it seemed like a far better use of my time to dust off the vinyl of my collection and just listen to the music. Or maybe, even better, go out and find some new music by the current generation of snot-nosed rebels, which will prevent me from wallowing in nostalgia and kick my rear into gear. There's something about the genre of the film documentary that seems to add layers of dust to music and music culture, or sprays them with a preservative that may keep them for future generations but which seems stale as a living thing.

The one moment I loved above all in the flick was the appearance of the now-middle-aged and delicious Poly Styrene, who manages to come off as honest and fresh as she did in X-Ray Spex. But in general the shock of seeing virtually all the (surviving) great bands of the era in paunchy, balding, reflective -- dare I say, mature? -- late middle age made me wince. In about 2015, there'll be a similar documentary about old-school rap, followed ten years later by nostalgic flashbacks about techno and ecstasy...and so on.

Looking back more personally, I am reminded of how many conversations me and my buds had back in the day about whether somebody was a poseur or not, how hardcore something was, and similarly now-obviously-pointless bones of contention. At the time there was a perceived dividing line between the 'fashion' types who just glommed on to the look 00 and those kids, bizarrely, keep recycling with each new generation, well after the initial shock value has been exhausted -- and guys (like us, of course) who had the "attitude". In retrospect, there was a big divide in what the "attitude" meant to a large variety of people: on one end of the spectrum, it meant a form of anarchy that bordered on nihilism, and on the other, the DIY belief that could veer dangerously into thinking you could do everything without help from anybody (and screw anybody who didn't like what you were doing.) From that end of things, I found, say, "SLC: Punk!" a more authentic "documentary' retelling of what it was like than a film like "Punk:Attitude" - maybe more on that film on another day...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Matt,

didn't you used to sit next to me at St Andrew's?
20 years on, you still look familiar!!!

Get in touch on It'd be great to catch up

Best wishes

Ben (aka Windy Westwood)