As punk rock surfaced from the underground, representations of the genre crept into popular culture. Movie studios promptly produced cartoonish caricatures of punk rock. Invariably, the best film portrayals of punk are documentaries that take their cameras directly to bands and fans. This list features a mix of punk movies ranging from classic documentaries to the rare mainstream work that accurately mirrored the punk aesthetic.
ANOTHER STATE OF MIND
In 1982, the Better Youth Organization organized a 6-week tour with Youth Brigade and Social Distortion. Both bands and crew piled into a barely functional school bus and embarked on a 10,000 mile trek across the country. Two filmmakers followed behind and captured footage that became Another State of Mind.
Another State of Mind portrays the ups and downs of a legitimate DIY punk tour. Social Distortion and Youth Brigade give interviews and live performances that showcase the intensity of both bands and audience.
The film gives a sense of how inter-connected the national scene had become. When the bus breaks down in D.C., Minor Threat allows the stranded musicians to crash at Dischord House. For fans of hardcore, footage of Minor Threat rehearsing is absolutely priceless!
Equally notable are the interviews with random punks across the country. Keith Morris even makes an appearance. In the end, we are left with an accurate portrayal of the burgeoning 80’s punk scene.
Suburbia portrays a group of punk runaways. Fleeing a variety of abusive situations, they take shelter in an abandoned house and find a sense of community in their collective identities as TR. Standing for “The Rejected,” members must burn the letters into their arm before crashing at the squat house.
Rather than hire legitimate actors, director Penelope Spheeris recruited actual punks to portray the gang of misfits. One of the T.R. kids would later find fame with the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Spheeris also hired actual bands to perform in the movie. D.I., The Vandals, and T.S.O.L. all turn in stellar performances.
ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL
The Ramones star in Roger Corman’s classic, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. The film follows Riff Randell (played by P.J. Soles of Halloween fame!) and her quest to attend a Ramones concert. Of vital importance is meeting Joey Ramone. Riff will stop at nothing to hand-deliver songs she wrote for the band.
The most memorable scenes feature The Ramones. There’s an appearance of “The Ramones mobile” as the band visits fans waiting to buy tickets.
Joey serenades Riff as Dee Dee lurks in the shower.
Despite a dizzying sea of obstacles, Riff makes it to the show! She finds her way backstage and meets the band, but not before catching a blistering performance!
Repo Man stars a punk rocker named Otto whose reluctant employment as a repo man leads to adventure. Witty and poignant, this science fiction comedy provides plenty of laughs. It would be a mistake, however, not to acknowledge the role of punk in elevating Repo Man to cult status.
Repo Man’s embrace of punk rock proved vital to its existence. The soundtrack featured music by luminaries like Iggy Pop, Fear and Black Flag. Studio execs had considered canning the film but changed their mind after the soundtrack became a commercial success.
Punk rock icons also appear in the film. Zander Schloss, who played Kevin the nerd, would soon join the Circle Jerks and later play with Joe Strummer. The Circle Jerks even make an appearance as a lounge act!
SID AND NANCY
Two years after directing Repo Man, Alex Cox continued to embrace punk rock with Sid and Nancy. The film opens in the aftermath of Nancy’s death before progressing back to show the rise of the Sex Pistols and the subsequent meeting of Sid and Nancy. Although Johnny Lydon famously derided the film for its inaccuracies, Sid and Nancy remains a beloved classic.
Rude Boy follows a Clash fan that quits his job to become a roadie for the band. Overall, it’s a disjointed affair that caused The Clash to distance themselves from the film. Regardless, their very presence makes Rude Boy essential viewing. Studio footage of the Give ‘Em Enough Rope sessions and live performances transform Rude Boy from questionable movie into historical document.
SLC Punk gains instant credibility as The Exploited plays over the opening credits. The film follows a dedicated group of punks that suffer the misfortune of being raised in mid-80’s Utah. Loosely based on people from director James Merendino’s past, the characters are well rounded and inherently likeable. With a soundtrack of assorted punk classics, it’s little wonder that SLC Punk has attained cult status.
CBGB portrays the rise of the seminal Bowery bar. Standing for “country, bluesgrass, blues,” CBGB was a financial flop before Television auditioned and received a gig. As owner Hilly Kristal embraced the emerging punk scene, the club shifts from failing business venture to iconic venue.
Regulars like The Ramones, Blondie, The Talking Heads and Iggy Pop make appearances. The Dead Boys get ample screen time as Kristal takes them on as manager. There is even a nod to journalist Legs McNeil, whose influential Punk magazine was a pivotal voice of the genre. Hollywood depictions of punk are invariably flawed, but CBGB makes a valiant effort at representing the major New York players.
WHAT WE DO IS SECRET
This biopic on the Germs front man was almost 10 years in the making. Undeterred by a seemingly endless string of setbacks, director Rodger Grossman persevered. In the process, he secured Shane West to portray Darby Crash. The actor fit the role so well; the Germs reunited and hit the road with West on vocals. Pat Smear’s involvement as music producer adds a dose of legitimacy to this portrayal of the notorious LA punk group.
THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION
Filmed between 1979 and 1980, The Decline of Western Civilization documents the LA punk scene. Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Fear, X, The Germs, Alice Bag Band and Catholic Discipline are all immortalized. In 2016, the documentary was added to the National Film Registry, ensuring that the iconic film will be preserved for future generations.