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Music and cinema has often had an uneasy relationship over the years, as Hollywood’s need to simplify everything and fit it neatly into a category has often resulted in biopics and studies of popular culture resorting to tired cliché and stereotypes. Nowhere is this more evident than with the punk subculture, with most American movies portraying this scene as dysfunctional, irresponsible and even criminal.
Following the release of both Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, filmmakers began to take an interest in the punk scene and throughout the 1980s exploited society’s fear of it, with such cult favourites as Class of 1984, Sid and Nancy and Class of Nuke ‘Em High.
Austin-based Zack Carlson is known around his native Austin for his work at the Alamo Drafthouse, where he has gained local acclaim for his ‘Terror Tuesday,’ in which he screens the original 35mm prints of an array of cult genre flicks from back in the day. With his co-editor Brian Connolly, Carlson has been working on his his first book, Destroy All Movies!!! The Complete Guide to Punks on Film, which takes a detailed look at the portrayal of punks in cinema. Featuring exlusive interviews with the likes of Allan Arkush (Rock ‘n’ Roll High School), Dan O’Bannon (The Return of the Living Dead) and Ulli Lommel (Blank Generation), Punks on Film also reviews over a thousand titles.
Zack Carlson discusses the portrayal of punks in popular culture.
The punk scene was portrayed in a variety of different ways during the 1980s with an array of cult classics like Repo Man, Return of the Living Dead and Savage Streets.
Well, with the exception of Repo Man, I think the movies you named did a pretty rugged job of portraying punks accurately. But that being said, they sure are entertaining. A punk would have to be pretty joyless to not appreciate filmmakers’ misguided attempts to depict punks as blood-starved filth maniacs or braindead party machines.
Repo Man is a different case because writer/director Alex Cox wasn’t approaching punk as an outsider. He was already aware of it and excited about it, which of course comes through in the movie. But at least ninety per cent of the time, movie punks were about as far from reality as you could get. They might as well have had actors playing leprechauns.
Hollywood often shows the alternative music scene as something negative and to be feared.
Hollywood has pretty much shown any and every ‘counterculture’ as something negative. When we were interviewing Ian MacKaye for the book, he more or less ran down the list: hippies, bikers, even breakdancers. Like most massive industries, Hollywood is primarily run by rich white guys who don’t understand anything.
The ‘fuck you’ message from the bands is one of the great aspects of punk rock, but I have to doubt that the filmmakers even got as far as hearing any of the music. In most cases, it seems like they just saw some punk kids at a 7-11 and made a mental note that this is what the End of the World dresses like.
Which filmmakers would you say have been the most supportive to punk and metal artists over the years?
Without a doubt, I have to give Penelope Spheeris serious credit here. Even though she does big money work in L.A. like Wayne’s World and the Little Rascals movie, she is deeply and permanently supportive of punk kids. Her 1984 movie Suburbia was the primary inspiration for the book, and is also my favorite movie of all time. And both the first and third Decline documentaries are pretty untouchable.
Others I need to mention are Dave Markey (Desperate Teenage Lovedolls, the Slog Movie), Lech Kowalski (D.O.A., Gringo – Story of a Junkie) and Wolfgang Buld, who directed Punk in London and a tremendous amount of other punk stuff. These guys are all lifers and deserve maximum respect.
Why do you think most musicians are unable to give convincing performances in movies? Even some of the most respected rock stars of recent years (Mick Jagger, Lemmy) prove very ineffectual in front of the camera?
I guess it’d be like a master bricklayer being a lousy chimneysweep. They both work with chimneys, but in totally different ways. Okay; this analogy is already irritating so I’m going to cut it out. What I meant is that being in a band is performing, just as acting is, but it requires a different set of talents. Part of that is having some poise and knowing when to keep things reserved, which certainly isn’t a useful skill in rock music. Especially punk.Which movie biopics would you say you have found to be the most accurate and entertaining and which performances were you the most impressed with?
Wow. I guess I haven’t seen one yet that I think worked at all. Certainly not the Germs one that came out a couple years ago. Jesus Christ.
Would you say that concept albums (such as Tommy and The Wall) translate well to the big screen and what other albums would you like to see adapted into movies?
I don’t mean to disappoint, but there aren’t many concept albums that I’m very dedicated to. And the one that I can imagine would make the best movie isn’t punk or new wave in any way. It’s by this semi-prog band called Klaatu, and it’s about a lighthouse keeper on the edge of the universe who shines a beacon so spaceships don’t go flying willy-nilly into a black hole. Should I be embarrassed that I just referenced that?
Do you feel that filmmakers such as Penelope Spheeris and Sam Dunn have presented impartial and honest documentaries on the world of heavy metal and do you have any ambitions of making a ‘rockumentary’ yourself?
I absolutely appreciate and praise the work from both of them. They have a challenge in that documentaries can only be as honest as their subjects are willing to be. And a lot of time – especially when you’re dealing with punks and metal dudes – you’re gonna get sarcasm and general wise-assery. Dunn didn’t run into that as much, and I think his Iron Maiden doc in particular seemed to really benefit from the band being excited about the film itself.
If I was old enough to hold a camera in the late ’70s or early ’80s, I would have loved to try chronicling the music scene. But I would never take on the task of making a punk or metal documentary in this day and age. Mainly because Anvil already exists and it’s perfect so why even try?
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