Seven Best Music Movies: Punk Rock Edition

Gary Old man plays.

Gary Old man plays Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious in 1986 biopic Sid and Nancy.

Sometimes, there isn’t a show. Or maybe there is, but you don’t have the energy/attitude/money for a show. But if you have a screen, you can bring the music right to your couch (or bed or toilet). In the interest of keeping you out of trouble until spring (that’s in February, right?), here’s my list of the top punk rock films. And, yes, a heavy metal edition is in the works …

Of course, the original punk rock flick is the one starring the original punk rock band. Rock ’n’ Roll High School (1979) is a throwback to the “Let’s put on a show” musicals of the ’40s and the juvenile delinquent flicks of the ’50s. Aspiring songwriter Riff Randall (P.J. Soles) and her favorite band (the Ramones) do battle with the psycho fascist principal of Vince Lombardi High School amid record burnings, hall monitors and blow-up dolls.

Hard Core Logo (1996) is a mockumentary about the inglorious reunion of a Canadian thrash band. The movie covers the conflict between staying indie for the cred versus going major label for the money. Then there’s the smaller crises: Who sits where in the van, who drank whose beer and who made up a Saskatchewan-size lie to get this tour rolling in the first place?

Sid and Nancy (1986) is the tale of two people who should never have fucking met: Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and suburban junkie Nancy Spungen. The movie’s oddly touching romance is the human (and humane) eye of a screaming hurricane of music, drugs, violence and self destruction. Gary Oldman’s performance as Sid was his first on film, but ranks as one of the finest of his 30-year career.

Because truth can be stranger than fiction, there’s The Filth and the Fury (2000), Julien Temple’s documentary about the Sex Pistols and the rise of the British punk scene. The film features interviews with the surviving Pistols and their brethren (Malcolm McLaren does his bit while wearing a gimp mask), as well as footage from the Pistols’ glory days, including their “Jubilee Day” concert in front of the House of Parliament and, naturally, their obscenity-laden talk show appearance.

The origins of the riot grrrl can probably be traced back to Ladies and Gentlemen: The Fabulous Stains (1982), a weirdly prescient account of the swift rise and swifter fall of a punk star. A war-painted Diane Lane stars as an orphaned teen who parlays 15 minutes of TV news fame into a band into a tour into a hit single into … right back where she started. Watch for the Clash’s Paul Simonon and Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones and Paul Cook in the Stains’ rival band.

Penelope Spheeris has made a number of films about teenage angst, but it all began with The Decline of Western Civilization (1981), her documentary about the L.A. punk scene. There are interviews and performances from Fear, the Circle Jerks, X and a pre-Henry Rollins Black Flag, as well as a star turn by the soon-to-overdose Darby Crash of the Germs. The late then-LAPD Chief Daryl Gates asked that this film never be shown in his city. Last year it was screened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. I’m sure he was spinning in his grave.

Long before Todd Haynes was an Academy Award nominee, he made Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987), a biography of the tragic singer … starring Barbie dolls. The dolls enact Karen’s descent into depression and anorexia, helped by her controlling, perfectionist parents and controlling, closety brother. Family outrage is the main reason why this film isn’t shown anymore, but there’s also the lack of music rights. Still, a film about slow death starring mutilated Barbie dolls that’s illegal to watch … what’s more punk rock than that?

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