Don Letts’ “Punk: Attitude”
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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