I was a punk growing up. No, I didn't have the Mohawk or the safety pins (how cliche). Instead, I drank in the anti-social, anti-music statements of The Ramones and The Clash, The Sex Pistols and the kings of De-Evolution, DEVO, as they destroyed the disco dinosaurs like a musical meteor out of a primordial sky. As a teen in the '70s I was torn between the peer pressures of my specific sphere of influence (all Styx and Journey, and...SHUDDER...Molly Hatchet) and the amazing music coming out of New York and the UK. When punk went West, I went too, grabbing hold of any Fear or X albums I could. By the time I was in college, New Wave had taken over and the DIY movement was relegated to a few goofs like The Anti-Nowhere League. Heck, even Johnny Rotten went post-punk with his brilliant brand of deconstructionism, Public Image Ltd. Today, poseurs love to proclaim Green Day and their ilk as the current inheritors of The Damned or The Dead Boys three chord mantle, and that's just bullshit. The real contemporary punks live in Finland and they call themselves Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät (for Pertti Kurikan's Name Day).
As the subject of the sensational documentary The Punk Syndrome (I prefer the Finnish title - Kovasikajuttu - it sounds so much more mysterious to my Western ears), this quartet has its issues...legitimate issues. They are considered learning disabled, though we in the Ever-Present Need to Categorize and Label Everyone States of America would instantly recognize and call out such issues as Autism, Aspergers, and Downs. They have been making music since 2009, and use the medium as an unique window into their world as well as a way to complain about the preconceptions over who they are and the battles they must fight every single day. One of the better moments comes when the band members muse on how they are not allowed coffee (apparently, this is a big thing in Scandinavia) because of their condition. Formally, guitarist Pertti Kurikka writes most of the music and some of the lyrics. He shares the latter chore with vocalist Kari Aalto. Add in bassist Sami Helle and drummer Toni Välitalo and you've got the Nordic version of Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee and Tommy/Marky. They've released a few singles, an EP, and an album, and when they can, they tour and play live.
It is during the course of their everyday existence that this cinema verite documentary displays its and its subject's various charms. Granted, we are dealing with the handi-capable in a foreign setting (get ready for a lot of confusing subtitles) but it's the music which transcends. You can hear it in the basic song structures and guttural roar from Aalto. Decades ago, we would have condescendingly called this "arts therapy," but for Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät, the drive and the desire to express themselves takes over for any occupational positioning. No one fears the band delivering the next American Idiot. Instead, we watch as the concept of playing punk rock, of being part of a scene and accepted by those who might normally shun them, provides an outlet that physical and mental restrictions deny. There's also humor here as the guys provide insightful, off the cuff reactions to things that we take for granted. Members of the PC-police should be wary, however. The word "retard" is tossed around with regularity. It's part of many lyrics, and the group occasionally references each other by such now unacceptable slams.
As they perform, as they chug their way through tunes telling about life in a group home or the difficulty with just getting by, we see the universality in music and its making. Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät are not designed to step in and reinvent punk nor are they accomplished enough to become superstars. Instead, they border on the novelty and, dare one say it, the side show (but not in the bad way such a classification would infer). At first, people are drawn to the idea of seeing four mature men, each with their own individual struggles, overcoming said pitfalls to do something others could only dream of...and they are better than some carnival barker's subject matter. They can hold their own with the likes of today's pseudo anarchists, screaming about their sorry lives as they drive fancy cars to the bank to deposit their iTunes money. In fact, they are reminiscent of bands like The Shaggs. They take a known format and make it wholly their own. Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät may not be a household name, but they should be. In fact, here's hoping The Punk Syndrome turns the world onto their music, and movie fans onto their amazing story.
Directors Jukka Kärkkäinen and J-P Passi don't offer anything fancy in the filmmaking department (this is fly on the wall stuff at its best, with no talking head sitdowns to distract us from the band themselves) and the DVD release of The Punk Syndrome often has a rough time with their raw footage. The 1.78:1 image is good (obviously captured on HD video cameras), but it does suffer from what some might refer to as a guerilla, off the cuff approach. The band are often unruly and uncontrollable, but for the most part, the visual element is fine. As for the sound elements, the Dolby Digital mix does a good job of capturing the music and the sometimes claustrophobic atmosphere of the places where the band performs. Again, this is in Finnish with English subtitles, so be forewarned. As for added content, there are a couple of trailers. That's all. Too bad, really. YouTube is brimming with clips of the group, and some additional background would help us understand the band and their predicament better.
Make no mistake about it: Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät are not just some comical fluke. They aren't some band tossed together by doctors and therapists as a way to get a few aging patients out and about. There is a real emotional link between punk and the four members of the group, a need for a legitimate outlet which lets them be themselves and express same. Earning an easy Highly Recommended rating, The Punk Syndrome isn't one of those feel good films where you come out of it happy for your own lot in life and secure in the knowledge that people "like that" have a way of "feeling normal." Like most of the music made in the '70s, it's a shout out to a society that wants to constantly label and limit you. For Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät, that's all that matters.
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