reviews by Peter Schorn of The Digital Bits
2005 (2005) - IFC (Capital Entertainment)
Program Rating: B
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B/B-
Writer/director/musician Don Letts - director of The Clash
documentary Westways to the World
and member of Clash guitarist Mick Jones' post-Clash project Big
Audio Dynamite - has been a longtime fixture since the earliest
days of the UK punk scene. With such bona fides, it'd be natural
to expect great things from the documentary Punk:
Attitude, but despite including interviews with a
veritable who's who of the genre, it ends up being a maddeningly
incomplete portrait of the music that defined a defiant
Part historical overview and primarily oral history, the show
traces punk's proper origins in not England or New York City, as
the accepted legends would have people believe, but Michigan
with garage bands like ? and the Mysterians, Iggy Pop and the
Stooges and the MC5. As a musician from the Detroit-area, it's
always been an annoyance that our contributions to this genre
have been ignored, so it was nice to see us get our props.
(Overrated hype act The Strokes stole more from Iggy than they
ever did from Television, but because the music press was based
in NYC and seeking to regenerate their past glories, it wasn't
likely that they'd mention someone outside the 212 area code,
along in just under an hour-and-a-half, Letts zips quickly from the
early Michigan days to New York City, and bands like the Ramones and
New York Dolls, before skipping across the puddle to Old Blighty and
the bands that typically get credited as founding punk, the Sex
Pistols and The Clash. After the early-Eighties, when punk started
to break down and be supplanted by New Wave, it leaps ahead a decade
to briefly laud Nirvana before jumping up to rap-metal hybrids like
Limp Bizkit. While I suppose Fred Durst may be considered (wrongly)
to embody the titular punk attitude, it diffuses the focus as much
as if they'd covered crunchy granola artist festivals like Lilith
Fair for their gyno-centric anti-punk attitude. They also use a
Beastie Boys clip from 1986 and Public Enemy from 1988 to represent
early-Eighties rap and how punk melded with it. Huh?
What hampers the show the most is the missing persons, like members
of Blondie or Talking Heads, who were just as much of the CBGBs
scene and too much coverage of acts that are barely remembered
footnotes today, like Suicide or Agnostic Front. While they played
their part in the big picture, the bias toward arguably
less-important cult-grade acts is unfortunate. What is likely needed
is a longer-form approach to the subject (think of what a
10-hour-long Ken Burns' Punk
doc would be like) because in the limited time he has, Letts lets a
lot of important acts go undiscussed. Whether it was due to his
choice or inability to get participation from these figures is
unknown, but it weakens the overall effect.
Though it's incomplete in its guest list, the vast majority of those
featured are very good talkers, though Letts tends to run on and on
at times, getting multiple opinions about minor acts while bigger
deals go wanting. New York Dolls bassist Arthur Kane died shortly
after his session along with Sylvain Sylvain was taped, and former
Black Flag frontman and solo agitator Henry Rollins simply dominates
every second he's on screen with his pungent and often-hilarious
Considering its origins, with interviews shot on videotape and live
footage shot on who-knows-what, the 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer looks
pretty good, though the interviews show some aliasing on the angles.
As for audio, the only option is plain old 2-channel stereo sound
which is fine because punk ain't about surround poofiness, oi! Loud
and clear, allowing for the source material, it gets the job done
with no greasy kids stuff.
The two discs come in a tri-fold Digipack and sleeve, and a nifty
extra is a reproduction of issue #7 of the Sniffin'
Glue zine - neat. The extras kick off with Where
Are They Now?, a pack of 73 text updates ranging from a
sentence to a few paragraphs for people either interviewed or
mentioned in the film. It really needed an option to chapter advance
through them all instead of requiring going back to the list to
select the next one. Similarly, the Family
Tree section is a branching text system that allows you
to navigate 31 bands and see how they were as interrelated as West
Virginia mining towns.
Jumping to Disc Two, the slam dance continues with L.A.
Punk (1976-1980) (21:44) - a talking head oral history of
the scene from participants like Brendan Mullen (owner of The
Masque) and John Doe of X. While it's necessarily abbreviated, what
really hurts is the tactic of frequently not identifying who's
talking until several minutes into the film, leaving the viewer
wondering who the hell they're listening to.
Henry Rollins Interview (9:58)
is outtakes from his contribution to the feature and frankly I
would've preferred to listen to him talk for an hour-and-a-half
because Hank's a witty cat. I actually had to hit pause to stop
laughing when he discusses the Steve Miller Band in this piece.
(Definitely check out his spoken-word cum stand-up comedy albums,
particularly the two-CD Think Tank,
which includes a bit describing Marilyn Manson playing in daylight
as looking like "a bunch of zombies having a barbeque.")
However, a lot of this reappears in later features, so prepare for déjà
vu as you watch onward.
Dave Goodman Feature (15:12)
leads to an interview with The Sex Pistols' sound man and producer.
It was pretty dull stuff and didn't hold my interest.
Fanzines (10:48) is an
expanded version of what was briefly referenced in the film about
'zines like Sniffin' Glue in
the UK and Punk in New York.
It's a good piece, if only for the fact that we learn what Legs
McNeil's real first name is. (It's Eddie.) Likewise, Fashion
(8:54) is more about the finer points of safety pins and bondage
Women in Punk (9:05) is a
letdown because while it goes on about Patti Smith and Poly Styrene
of X-Ray Spex and the empowerment they felt as musicians, there
isn't a single mention of L.A.'s The Go-Gos - who were bigger than
all of them combined and arguably more influential - despite having
deep roots in their punk scene, nor Debbie Harry, likewise the
biggest thing to come out of New York.
Record Companies (5:43)
attempts to discuss the DIY movement of self-releasing records, but
suffers from not having a single label owner interviewed to explain
why they decided to put out music from this scene.
The Attitude/Spirit of PUNK
(8:33) are random interview excerpts abut what punk means to the
subjects. A lot of this is drawn from the end of the film and the
Rollins interview, so it's a bit redundant and has a bit of an air
of obituary about it. Jello Biafra's anti-George W. Bush/anti-War on
Terror rant is ironic considering he's wearing a B-2 stealth bomber
The Influences/Origins of PUNK
(12:16) is more interview outtakes about what inspired these people.
Boredom with bloated Seventies rock and lack of musical alternatives
along with some social alienation are common themes.
PUNK on Culture and the Arts
(7:16) is a more erudite selection of clips about the natural
cultural cannibalism and reintegration of art. Filmmaker Jim
Jarmusch gets the lion's share of time and credits his career to the
inspiration from the punk ethos.
UK Versus the US (11:07) isn't
as confrontational as the title sounds, but focuses more on how each
nation influenced and competed with each other. Rollins makes
another lengthy reappearance, but there are some good stories about
the connection between Malcolm McClaren and Vivienne Westwood and
the New York Dolls.
PUNK Evolution (9:25) has a
good anecdote about the origins of the term "No Wave" by
Thurston Moore that should've been left in the feature because it's
better than the Jello Biafra material that did make the cut. Moore
also goes on to explain how New Wave was viewed askance because it
was too commercial and acceptable to the mainstream. This is one of
the better extras.
The Gigs/Performance (9:56)
discusses first gigs and shows they saw, including the night Led
Zeppelin came to a Damned show, and The
PUNK Sound (8:03).
A lot of the material on this second disc is somewhat redundant, and
if the main feature had been two hours long most of it could've been
absorbed into that and the leftovers used to fill out a single disc.
The collected live clips are also impressive, for they capture the
raw intensity of the music before it became corporate and
watered-down for consumption at Hot Topic. It's not that Letts
doesn't dig deep enough, but that he chose to dig in places that are
less relevant and less interesting. While not a replacement for
dedicated docs about the Ramones and Sex Pistols like End
of the Century and The Filth
and the Fury (respectively), it's another piece of the
punk patchwork to be safety-pinned into the big picture. The show
itself ran on the IFC and despite the hefty batch of extras included
in this set, their drawn-out redundancy combined with the incomplete
nature of the film itself leads me to recommend catching it on the
1983 (2005) - ABC Television (MGM)
Program Rating: B-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B-/B-/F
Every generation seems to have a mutual touchstone of
entertainment that was meant to scare the bejeebers out of them,
as a cautionary tale against whatever horrifying eventuality may
lurk in the cultural subconscious. For members of Generation X
growing up in the Eighties, our Reefer
Madness was The Day After,
the movie that made nuclear war look like a bad thing because
it... like, you know... made your hair fall out and stuff. Like,
oh my God!! Nuclear war is such a bummer! Better get a t-shirt
that expresses your snappy philosophy and desires for peace!
(The best ones had the "FRANKIE SAY" prefix.)
Looking back at this depressing hunk of Cold War-era, Ronald
Reagan paranoia-mongering from the distance of 22 years is a
bipolar experience in cheesy nostalgia and somber misery.
structure spends the first 45 minutes introducing us to an All-Star
pack of Red Shirts - including JoBeth Williams, Steve Guttenberg,
John Lithgow, Bibi Besch, Amy Madigan and Stephen Furst - before the
bomb drops on Lawrence, Kansas. We're supposed to get to know all
these terrific people who are about to find out how "one
nuclear bomb could ruin their whole day," but the banal buildup
just let my girlfriend and I whip up an impromptu MST3K-worthy
heckling track predicting the trite dialogue in between our shouted
declarations of "You're all gonna die!"
Then the missiles fly; the power of splitting atoms lays waste to
the land; hair falls out, blisters form and our catty commentary
stopped dead in its tracks along with the human race.
The balance of the movie is a steady decline into depression, as the
overwhelming hopelessness consumes everything. While no one ever
thought that a nuke war was going to be a picnic, the unrelenting
grimness of this portrayal begs for some sliver of hope to be
glimpsed amongst the fallout. (I seem to remember Gene Siskel or
Roger Ebert commenting that there would be at least one wise-ass
goofing on the end of days.) But, there is no relenting in the dour
message: War bad! Disarm now!
An ending title card says that this movie was meant to inspire the
world leaders to avoid nuclear war - because the real thing would be
much worse - but though I was just a junior in high school and not
particularly savvy in a political sense, even then I could spot a
peacenik sell job. As wise university doctor Jason Robards talks
with his wife about the Cuban Missile Crisis and how it didn't
happen, all that was missing was a guy kicking us in the ribs and
shouting, "GET THE POINT?!? Reagan's gonna screw it all up!!!"
The process of how news of the escalating world tensions were
digested by the people then are weird to watch now in the Age of the
Internet. Compare seeing people clustering around TVs and radios for
news about escalating tensions and lining up to use pay phones to
what happened on 9/11 as people supplemented the TV with web sites,
chat programs and cell phones to assemble a comprehensive picture of
what was happening in (un)real-time. Of course, it's even more
ironic to hear one girl say, "We aren't going to nuke the
Russians to save the Germans. Now if they were talking about oil and
Saudi Arabia, I'd be worried," and to watch panic-buying of
food and batteries and preparations for evacuations after hurricane
Katrina showed that no amount of warning may be enough time when
there's no organization on a local level.
The gritty pseudo-documentary realism of the missile silo crews and
the Air Force command planes contrast to the mundane melodrama of
the character's pre-nuke lives, but it only adds to the dissonance
of the story - is this about the military or the citizens? With the
maker's clearly-evident dovish stance, it's a wonder that it didn't
play out like a sequel to Dr. Strangelove.
The fullscreen transfer on MGM's DVD release shows its source's age
with a consistent layer of grit and grain. Nighttime scenes are
murky, and black levels and shadow details are weak, but overall the
detail level is respectable. The mono audio soundtrack is clean and
free of hiss, but the sound is frequently marred by a metallic echo
on interior scenes.
The only way this disc could be more bare-boned would be for it to
come without a case. While I'm not sure how much more could've been
added for this TV movie, some sort of commentary track putting this
show in perspective may have been nice. One annoying detail is the
anachronistic case copy which synopsizes the story as being set "against
the real-life backdrop of the US deployment of WMDs in Europe during
the escalating cold war (sic)." (We're lucky that we never got
a chance to push those Ruskies over the edge with our belligerent
behavior, no? Please.)
While The Day After was the
water-cooler and cafeteria discussion event of its time, today it is
little more than a kitschy artifact of a simpler time when the enemy
was easier to pick out on a map, armed with rockets and
technologically-advanced warheads, and able to be defeated without a
shot fired. When cataclysmic carnage is more likely to come out of a
clear Tuesday morning at the point of a box cutter wielded by a
twisted and medieval belief system, it's almost reassuring to
revisit an old fairy tale meant to scare the children into behaving.