Somehow the very idea of a Punk Documentary seems antithetical to the notion. For better or worse my notes taken while watching this documentary equal zip, zero, zilch, nada. And somehow that seems more in line with what was going on in Punk, back in the late '70s when the Sex Pistols started the whole thing, right? Or did they? And who cares, since depending on who you are or whom you talk to, Punk is/was all about the rejection of anything and everything establishment, or by the rules. So I suppose Punkers would tell you it doesn't matter who started Punk, and that no one did anyway. At the very least, Don Letts, popular DJ during Punk's heyday in London is a likely choice to make sense of the whole mess. His documentary, Punk: Attitude is not a mess, it's fairly exhaustive and well-informed, which means that no matter what your opinion or attitude, if you're a rock music fan you'll either do well or have a damn good time checking out this two-disc set.
Letts, a dreadlocked dub/reggae DJ, somehow found himself at the center of London's Punk scene in the '70s, often entertaining future-luminary Punkers with the good blend and tasty tunes in his apartment. He was so connected he went on to form Big Audio Dynamite with ex-The Clash guitarist Mick Jones, so he knows whereof he interviews. But he doesn't really dispense with documentary dogma as one might dream about in a Punk documentary. As with most other documentaries clips, photos and vintage concert footage are all whipped out and mixed with contemporary interviews from the likes of Sylvain Sylvain, Henry Rollins, everyone from the Sex Pistols except Johnny and - of course - Sid, David Johansen and etc. etc. With some notable exceptions it's pretty much everyone you might hope to find. Only with something as once-vital and now precious as Punk, various fans are bound to be disappointed that someone or some group that they loved is missing.
At any rate, Letts takes it way back, including Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley in Punk lineage, and damned if he isn't right. In fact there's probably no one before or since more Punk than The Killer Jerry Lee. (You have to be Punk to marry your 13-year-old cousin, right?) The specter of the MC5 is raised, Iggy Pop, The Ramones, The New York Dolls, hell, even Talking Heads is briefly folded in to the mix. The upshot being that you'll really understand the lineage of this musical genre that fought so hard to avoid all concept of lineage, because Punk was all about rejecting everything that came before. Pick up that guitar and scream truth to power, even if you can't play.
Some little joys delivered include delineation between Punk fashion and Punk aesthetics; Punk musicians held crappy clothes together with safety pins because they were poor, lazy, and didn't give a fuck, Punk followers deliberately tore up decent clothes and fastened them together with numerous safety pins to look cool. And Punk musicians didn't really get off on being spat upon or beat up, that was something weird the fans decided to do. And then the Sex Pistols brought Punk to The States - great but way-too-brief footage of the Pistols in Atlanta, etc. (plus archival footage of other bands) tells the tale. Rednecks everywhere hated them, while the Young and Disaffected were immediately smitten.
And Letts keeps digging, showing how Punk blossomed and mutated in Los Angeles, until modern history when Punk-Popsters like Limp Bizkit and Green Day became pretty much everything original Punkers (if there ever was such a thing) disdained. So anyway, no, you're not going to get all of your favorite groups, and no, you're not going to get nothing but vintage concert footage, and no, you're not going to get a definitive answer about what Punk is, was, or will be. But for being circumspect, Don Letts gives you as much as he possibly can, and he knows whereof he speaks. Fans of rock music, Punk music, and pretty much any old kind of music, will find this to be a well-thought out, exciting and invigorating examination of a beast that never did anything but fight against examination.
A 16 X 9 widescreen ratio presentation is clear, sharp and detailed for plentiful contemporary interview segments. No issues with compression, mastering or digital artifacts are noticeable. Of course there are plenty of grotty vintage videos, which enjoy softer, damaged, or washed-out images, exactly what you should expect and exactly why would you be complaining, anyway? What are you, a Rude Boy?
Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo is in your face, man. By that I mean to say it's also what you would expect, quite solid all around, with vintage audio (from concert footage) at times being less than stellar, but overall totally acceptable. Though the music is definitely up front and often the prime focus, it's never outrageously out-of-balance with interviewee's voices. Due to the nature of the documentary, this isn't something you're going to look to for reference quality audio, but it will get your fist pumping anyway.
2-discs coming at you in a standard sized keepcase with a flipper. A great deal of extras, almost literally too many to list, so I'll kind-a break it down like this:
Disc One contains the feature doc, four great rockin' movie Previews, and two interesting text-based extras. The first is a Where Are They Now? info bonanza, containing a paragraph or two on each of about 75 people from the documentary. Sure, many of us know what happened to Sid and Johnny, but that leaves about 73 people about whom you may be curious. If that's not enough information for you, a handy, text-based Family Tree should have you clicking the buttons on your remote endlessly (once you get the hang of navigating) as you discover the multitude of connections between who played what with whom of the incestuous Punk universe.
Disc Two throws down over two-hours of stuff, including a 20-minute mini-doc by Dick Rude, called L.A. Punk, and a DVD-Rom feature, California Screamin': "Behind The Masque" - the definitive magazine article about the popular Punk club, by author Don Waller. Furthermore, you get 12 Additional Featurettes ranging in length from 8 to 15 minutes each, which all expand nicely upon, and are essentially outtakes from, the documentary. From fashion to post Punk to record labels to more Henry Rollins, it's more Punk than you can shake a stick at.
Director and noted DJ Don Letts' documentary won't please every Punk fan out there; it's such an expansive subject about which fans are rabidly passionate that you'd never be able to cover everything. However, as an exhaustive, invigorating and just-plain-cool look at that scary music scene, it should probably be on pretty much every rock music fan's shelf anyway. You can probably find other examples that delve more deeply into the Sex Pistols or the California Punk scene, but you won't find any as expansive and entertaining than this. Most definitely Recommended.
- Kurt Dahlke
~ More of Dahlke's DVD Talk reviews here at DVD Talk I'm not just a writer, I paint colorful, modern abstracts, too! Check them out here KurtDahlke.com