Quick: name the first feature film about hardcore punk. If you guessed at something that got dumped in theaters in the ‘80s only to become a hit on VHS and cable, you are sadly mistaken. Green Room, the third film by Jeremy Saulnier, has the honor of being the first feature to take place in the hardcore punk scene. So many films about punk have resonated with audiences; why has the unkillable, tribal subgenre taken so long for its moment in the sun?
To answer that question, let’s first take a look at the history of punk on the big screen. By the early 1980s, punk had enough pop cultural cachet to inspire a few low-budget movies: a documentary (Another State of Mind), a concert film (Urgh: A Music War), two long-gestating features (Downtown 81/New York Rock and Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains), and at least one unintentionally hilarious hour of network TV (“Next Stop, Nowhere”, the notorious punk episode of Quincy). The magpie punk sensibility had evolved to include reggae, avant-garde classical, and (shock horror!) disco; with the advent of MTV, new cutting-edge bands were more likely to incorporate keyboards and go for a formal, skinny-tie look to go for the camera-friendly New Wave audience.
By 1981, however, punk was starting to look like just another genre. Many of the first-wave bands broke up before finding an audience. The ratty hedonism had hardened into depressing decadence, with many artists dying of drug addiction or untreated STIs. Outside the crepuscular confines of CBGB and The Masque, dawn had started to break over Ronald Reagan’s America, and the liberal, gender-bending ethos and DIY ethic of punk began to look out-of-step with the new conservative age. A new “social disease” that had yet to be defined as AIDS instilled fear among the sexually active.
Punk’s evolution left many straight white men out in the cold, and the more liberal-minded among them had grown to fear President Reagan’s commie-baiting and nuclear zealotry. A few up-and-coming bands stripped punk back to its basics, cutting low-fi songs of one minute or less that featured fast tempos, spiky guitars, and dystopian political lyrics shouted in a Cookie Monster growl. The Vancouver-based DOA gave the nascent movement a name with the release of their album Hardcore ’81, and Ian MacKaye gave it a statement of purpose with the Minor Threat song “Straight Edge”: no drinking, no drugs, no meat, and—in some of the more extreme iterations—no sex.
Unlike its more exotic parent, hardcore didn’t attract the kind of rubbernecking-at-the-auto-accident press coverage that punk received in its infancy. Because so many of the bands sounded interchangeable, however, it wasn’t taken as seriously. Mainstream media ignored the subgenre and the profanity-strewn lyrics made radio play a non-issue, but hardcore found an audience in a heretofore-ignored demographic: teenagers. In his book Our Band Could Be Your Life, writer Michael Azerrad quotes Teen Idles member Nathan Strejcek: “Since we weren’t allowed to legally drink, we said ‘fine, we don’t want to’, just to piss the lawmakers off. This is where we established a new place in modern society for ourselves…clear-minded thinking against the most evil of all, the adults!”
While LA and New York had thriving hardcore scenes, Boston was a major center for the genre. Bands played to packed all-ages houses at Gallery East, zines like Boston Rock kept tabs on the scene, and Modern Method Records released two compilations of hardcore bands: This is Boston Not LA and Unsafe At Any Speed. The bands that came out of Boston’s scene, like the cocaine-addled Gang Green, hockey-obsessed Slap Shot, and gross-out Cape Cod quintet The Freeze, belied a diversity of sound and perspective that casual listeners might not associate with the genre.
Indeed, a look at so-called hardcore punk bands reveals a similar assortment of musical skills and points of view. Groundbreaking punk bands like Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys subverted classic-rock conventions on their best-known songs, and lists of Best Forgotten Hardcore Bands reveal some surprisingly experimental sides that got lost on their way to the all-ages show. Hardcore’s surprising diversity gave rise to the dark mirror of the politically liberal genre: Nazi punk, in which bigoted bands flipped the scene’s DIY ethos, politics, and loud-and-fast approach to support a more hateful agenda.
Green Room draws on the dichotomy of the politicized, anti-mainstream band against the hate speech of a violent subculture by pitting grimy, principled quartet The Ain’t Rights against the slithery owner of a white-supremacist bar (Sir Patrick Stewart, in a nightmarish, subtle turn) and his henchmen. The band’s snotty attitude of pissing off the locals (here with a well-placed cover of “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” by the Dead Kennedys) is true to the punk ethos. They also defend themselves with the literal instruments of their trade—by using mic feedback to repel attack dogs—in a way that takes DIY punk to its logical extreme. Even before the Ain’t Rights’ fateful gig at the bigot bar, Saulnier does a great job of setting the hardcore mood: the film opens with the band stealing biofuel for their tour van, and an early expository scene unfolds in a college radio station, where the band details their disdain for technology and details their punk cred.
Since its release in the spring of this year, Green Room has attracted rave reviews and resonated with audiences. While the death of lead actor Anton Yelchin has given the film a tragic and unfortunate media hook, its suspenseful mien and innovative setting elevate it to a film worth checking out on its own merits. While EDM and pop have supplanted punk in the public eye, the popularity of documentaries like XXX All Ages and American Hardcore, combined with the thriving underground hardcore scene in Boston and throughout the country, make this an untapped setting for more films. Let a thousand Green Rooms flourish.