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Don Letts’ “Punk: Attitude”

Posted on 26 April 2005 by Caryn Rose (6)

This documentary by the infamous Don Letts had its big screening tonight at the Tribeca Film Festival. By ‘big’ I mean there were so many legends in attendance I gave up sending text message updates to my friend Heather, because it was going to be easier to say ‘Everyone was there’ in a phone call after the screening. There was also supposed to be an introduction from Letts before the screening (which we mostly got), and a Q&A with him afterwards (which was disappointingly perfunctory at best).

For those of you who aren’t aware, Don Letts was the DJ at the Roxy in London, the club of the infamous “100 days of punk” at which every band in the UK punk scene in its heyday performed. When the Roxy began, there were no punk rock records to play, so he played hardcore reggae and dub and is widely credited for helping bring that influence to UK punk rock. He also had his video camera with him, and filmed the embarassingly amateurish Punk Rock Movie, which is nothing more than a bunch of raw footage crudely spliced together (a three year old with a pair of scissors could have done an effective editing job).

The point is, Letts had the access, and the footage, and certainly has the credentials. I remember seeing Don Letts in the car with the Clash as they arrived at Shea Stadium to open for the Who in 1982. So the thought of a documentary on this subject from Letts now was goosebump-inducing.

The film opens with Henry Rollins stating, “All we need is one person to say ‘Fuck this’ and everyone points at them: ‘Voice of a generation! Thank you! I’ve been thinking that all this time but haven’t had the courage to say it myself!” Rollins ends up serving as de facto narrator simply by virtue of the fact that he speaks in soundbytes, is incredibly articulate, and is more than a little knowledgeable on the subject.

Letts operates from the assumption that the audience for the movie will know who the bands are and why they are important, and it doesn’t pander; it will be slightly alienating to an outsider but so is punk rock. He nails many important points that so many of his predecesors have gotten wrong: connecting the likes of Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis with punk, pays the proper homage to the MC5 and the Stooges, more than acknowledges the likes of the Sonics, ? and the Mysterians, the Count Five and the rest of the bands that appeared on the original Nuggets compilation put together by Lenny Kaye (who would end up as second in command of the Patti Smith Group, of course). Warhol gets props for his vision of the Velvet Underground: “When their record came out, it was actually listenable,” says David Johansen.

The chronology is precise, moving through the early punk bands, getting Hilly Krystal on camera, going to the UK and while he doesn’t get it absolutely right, giving the Ramones credit where credit is due, there is at least an acknowledgement of the difference between US and UK punk and a good basic explanation of the political aspects behind UK punk. David Jo gets to diss Malcolm McClaren (“He claims to have managed us, he was there for the last 10 minutes of the Dolls.”) There is priceless interview footage with Sylvain Sylvain and the late Arthur Kane that are worth the price of admission alone. There are great interviews with Jim Jarmusch (also another de factor narrator), Roberta Bayley, Mick Jones and Paul Simonon, Siouxie, Steve Jones, Tommy Ramone, Handsome Dick Manitoba, James Chance, Glenn Branca, and Thurston Moore (just to name a few).

But then, once punk has ended, the film begins to flounder. There’s an exploration of post-punk and Sonic Youth gets some time on camera, but there is no mention that Thurston used to play with Glenn Branca’s guitar orchestras (or even a mention of the guitar orchestras, despite the fact that Branca was interviewed and appears about half a dozen times in the film). Although they certainly belong, it feels like Sonic Youth are worked into the film because Thurston agreed to be interviewed, and there’s very little attempt to tie them to the rest of the scene.

However, that’s not as bad as what felt like the three minutes the LA punk scene got, a segment that rightly devoted a lot of time to the Screamers, but nothing to the Avengers or the Germs (except in passing), and somehow, John Doe and Exene Cervenka don’t exist at all. (I was going to ask Letts about that in the post-screening Q&A, but he tired of it after two questions and cut the session short.) DC punk somehow gets tied in with straight edge (for about thirty seconds), and there’s some early Minor Threat and great Fugazi footage, but I can’t believe he couldn’t get Ian Mackaye to be interviewed for the film.

But none of that compares to the sudden introduction of Nirvana as the prodigal son of punk rock, the master plan come to fruition. There’s no discussion of the entire American independent rock movement spearheaded by R.E.M. that was singlehandedly inspired by all the bands that had just been discussed; no Replacements, Husker Du, Minutemen, Pixies — just suddenly, Nirvana (and zero discussion of Olympia and the K Records scene, also inspired by punk). Even Rollins gets it wrong, saying that once Nirvana were signed, then Alice in Chains got a deal (true) and so did Soundgarden (wrong, they had one about FOUR YEARS EARLIER). There were so many bands in Seattle and “grunge” that were influenced by punk rock that it is an absolute crime that Nirvana are held up as some kind of messiahs.

Then, Letts closes the film by having people — but not everyone, which I don’t understand — talk about what punk rock meant to them, what the message was. All due respect to Roberta Bayley, but I would have liked to hear more of the musicians chime in on this subject than Letts managed to capture.

In short, “Punk: Attitude” is nice to have, but hardly essential. It is great that we have so many legends captured on film talking since we seem to be losing them every five seconds. But where was all of Letts’ fantastic Clash footage? And, he couldn’t talk Bob Gruen (who was interviewed for the film) into loaning him two minutes of the Dolls footage that everyone knows he has? Almost all of the live footage has been seen before, and that was probably the most disappointing element of all.

On the other hand, for the 13 year old kids, wearing Ramones shirts, who were there with their parents, this was probably like watching The Ten Commandments, so maybe I’ve seen too much and expected too much. In the end, I got to sit in a room with Martin Rev and Tommy Ramone and Handsome Dick Manitoba and Arturo Vega and Danny Fields and watch them watch themselves and their friends onstage, so I’m going to stop complaining and feel lucky that I got a chance to do that, and I’d still recommend that you go see it if it comes to your town.

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6 Responses to “Don Letts’ “Punk: Attitude””

  1. Tanya says:

    I just saw the film tonight at the very UN-punk Prada Store in Soho (lol! But they were cool, I was supposed to be on ‘the list’, but they couldn’t find ‘the list’ that I was supposed to be on so they just let me in). Anyway, that’s a great review!

    I agree with many of your comments. I really liked the film, and the Sylvain/Arthur interview you mentioned was absolutely my favorite part! (And IMHO David Jo is justified in dissing Malcolm.) I also agree on your assessment of Rollins, I’m not a Black Flag fan but he nailed a LOT of it right on the head.

    I just LOVE the interview (damn I can’t remember who it was with) where the guy said he went to see the Ramones at CBGB and he thought it sucked SO BAD that it pissed him off so much he couldn’t think of anything else but the Ramones for 24 hours…then he went back the next night. Classic!

    Of course the omissions kind of suck, I wish they would have spent more than 30 seconds on Television, but as Letts said after the screening, it’s a 90-minute film and you can only put in so much (he was more open to questions tonight, he tried to walk off but once people started asking he waited until there were no questions left). He needs to get hooked up with a PBS deal like Ken Burns (lol), then he could do an 8-hour series!

    I have to say I’m SO GLAD to read what you wrote about Nirvana! Yeah, they were ‘good’, but they’re SO overrated! If I see or hear one more thing proclaiming Kurt Cobain or Nirvana as the freaking second coming I’m gonna puke. At the point where, I think Jarmusch says something like, “Nirvana took all of the knowledge gained from the punk era…” my brain inserted, “except not to shoot smack”!

    As a final note (hope you don’t mind such a long comment) you mentioned that Danny Fields was there — I’m jealous, he’s so cool! I met him for a half a second after the Stooges show at Roseland in 2003, and while trying to establish a common tie (a friend of a friend is friends with him) he misunderstood what I said and thought someone he knew died! Well, *I* could have died, doh!

  2. Henry says:

    I note the comment that most of the live footage featured in PUNK: attitude has been seen before.

    This is actually not the case – unless of course you are fortunate enough to have a route into the ever burgeoning bootleg DVD market. This is now rife in America given that all of the FBI’s records relating to the bootleg traders were stored in the basement of the World Trade Centre! The FBI have now (unoffically) given up pursuing purveyors of “unoffical” archive (allegedly).

    Items which have never been offically released before are:

    Magazine performing ‘Shot By Both Sides’;

    Footage of the Damned’s first album being manufactured;

    The Sex Pistols watching themselves on the Bill Grundy show;

    Bad Brains filmed in New York on Super 8;

    James White & The Blacks in concert;

    P.I.L. – super8 footage;

    Rarely seen black and white Iggy Pop footage;

    Much of the MC5 super8 footage (such as the bands hitting one another with guitars!);

    The Dictators footage seemed to suprise Dick Manitoba as it has not been seen in this quality in many years!;

    Don’s Clash footage certainly featured a couple of shots that had not been seen in any other documentary; and finally

    The Screamers shots are outtakes which have not been widely seen

    I hope this answers your questions and inspires you buy the DVD which is out in September!!

  3. Henry says:

    I omitted to say in my previous email that the John Cooper Clarke sequence featuring the song ’36 Hours’ and The Buzzcocks performance of ‘I Can’t Control Myself’ featuring Howard Devoto are Granada clips, which according to their records, have not been officially licensed until now.

    The Pretenders performance of ‘Stop Your Sobbing’ is also pretty rare and is taken from a German documentary licensed through Bue Film GMBH.

  4. clr says:

    Thanks for your detailed comments, and duly noted corrections. I guess I was just hoping against hope for that motherlode of Clash footage and came in with that expectation.

    Isn’t most of the MC5 stuff in the current documentary? Most of it seemed tres familiar to me. And some of it I felt I had seen before, not available for purchase, but private collectors, rock n roll conventions, etc.


  5. peter says:

    Good review. I saw this tonight in Los Angeles as part of AFI’s Music Documentary series, and thought it was superb.

    Don Letts ended up spending about 15 minutes for the Q&A, but at one point said he was really tired of talking about the film because spending too much time talking about it felt contrary to the spirit of punk, that idea of responding and acting spontaneously from your heart, without too much excess thought and meditation.

    The original cut of the film was more than 3 hours. What’s left was largely dictated by what his financial planners could afford (or had budgeted) to pay for the licensing. As he said, “you buy, you play.” He started off the Q&A by saying he didn’t want to talk about the bands he’d left out, though later on he did concede that it was rights fees that kept very much of the West Coast scene from being included: “You lot on the West Coast always get fucked.”

    Letts has two children, aged 12 and 18, and that was his driving force in making the film: he wanted to communicate more of the sense of the attitude behind the music, not a MTV or VH1 “history of,” for the younger generation that is only familiar with the record covers and t-shirts.

    He wanted to draw more parallels to the punk attitude inherent in the work of artists, writers, filmmakers, etc., throughout recent history (“Lenny Bruce was a punk”), but in the end wound up with something more akin to a straightforward music doc. More’s the pity, because I think the film he really wanted to make would have been something far-reaching and eye-opening.

    Of course, you could carp all night about what’s left out, but I thought he did a fantastic job of telescoping so many bands and personalities into 90 minutes. Beyond the entertainment (and memory factor for those of us who lived those years), I think Letts succeeded in making something valuable.

    I’m sure there were other living legends present, but the only one I recognized was John Lydon (!!!). Yup, the former Mr. Rotten looked amazingly fit and fantasic, and during the after-party reception (open to all ticket holders) he posed with pictures and signed autographs (and, after I told him “You changed me” said “Hurry! Change back!”). Letts constantly deflected attention to Lydon and called the Pistols his “inspiration” for getting involved with punk in the first place.

  6. Les R says:

    Punk was, and still is, very self destructing. Bob Mould makes several comments about the nature of 80s punk: drugs, eating habits, smoke, no sleep, alcohol. Perhaps this nature led to many early deaths.

    Of course, Don Letts makes no mention of Bob Mould. I guess when you are in husker du and regarded as one of the fathers of american punk, this filmaker does not care.

    Perhaps because Bob did clean up his life and never sold out. After all, Bob did refuse Lallapolloza AND producing Nevermind (the multi platinum album from Nirvana).

    Oh well. Punk begins with Nirvana I guess.