At the start of Don Letts' excellent new documentary Punk: Attitude, ex-Black Flag-er and perennial curmudgeon Henry Rollins explains punk as being in essence one guy looking at the world he's living in and saying "Fuck this." A pithy summation of the movement, to be sure, and also quite a smart one, as this is one of the few films about the birth, death, and pseudo-revival of punk rock to actually acknowledge the genre's limitations (you can only say "Fuck this" while playing 90-second songs for so long), while simultaneously reveling in another trip down the antiestablishment memory road.
Most of the literature and documentaries on punk tend to start out in the same place, talking about how in the mid-1970s music had become this bloated, big-business monster, with pretentious arena rock bands playing 20-minute solos and so on - and then came The Ramones to shatter all that. Letts - a former producer and icon in the scene, as well as director of the authoritative documentary on The Clash, Westway to the World - digs deeper than that, going back to the 1960s and early '70s, finding the root of the coming musical uprising not just in expected places like The Velvet Underground, MC5, and Iggy Pop, but also in the jaggedly poppy sounds of many now mostly forgotten garage bands (whose sound is still inspiring post-punkers like The Hives). In describing the ascent of punk later in the '70s, Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra talks about how just about every smaller town and city had one guy who was into The Stooges and The Velvet Underground who then moved to the bigger cities, met up with all the other like-minded small-town new arrivals, and started bands.
Once we reach the late '70s, Letts is on more familiar ground, though his impressive roster of interviewees - everyone from The New York Dolls' skeletal David Johansen to Jim Jarmusch - keeps a fresh and clear-eyed perspective on everything. And instead of just ending in a blur sometime in the early '80s when the initial burst of pissy rage had subsided, the film explores what happened afterward in underground music, with New Wave becoming the acceptable industry face of punk (cute outfits, danceable beats, not so angry), and ultimately setting the stage for Nirvana to rip apart the mainstream music industry in 1992.
What keeps Punk: Attitude from being just another nostalgia voyage for the pre-Green Day mohawk set is the fact that it's not just trying to map out the history of the movement, it also wants to get at what it was all about besides the music. Instead of just following the by-now rote story arc of the almighty trio (Sex Pistols, Clash, and Ramones) and engaging in another bout of talking heads dueling about where punk started first (New York or London - nobody ever mentions California), Letts broadens the scope to include a wide swath of musicians who usually get passed over. Thusly he includes Sonic Youth and Glenn Branca, the agro-noise guerrillas who headed up the atonally symphonic No Wave movement in the '80s. Though they are stranded somewhat in the narrative by not being comparable to anyone else, really, it's also great to see more unique groups like Fugazi, the complex and intellectual anti-corporate warriors, and Bad Brains, with their metal-tinged fusion of punk and reggae. These were all massively influential (though little noticed by the mainstream) bands who operated outside the sometimes narrow-minded idea of what punk was all about, though they shared a similar vision and anger at the status quo, both musically and socially.
Besides the smart interviews and amazing archival footage, Punk: Attitude is also useful as a guide to a time when perhaps musical rage didn't seem so manufactured - and a kid could still get beaten up just for walking down the street with dyed hair.
Reviewed at the 2005 Tribeca Film Festival.