Beyond the Clichés: Two Recent Punk Documentaries

The rise of punk rock in the 1970s and 1980s has inspired what sometimes seems like an endless stream of retrospective documentaries. Many of them repeat a well-known narrative: they focus on the best known British and New York punks –  The Sex Pistols, The Clash and Ramones chief among them – and draw a contrast between punk’s no-frills sound and the prog rock and disco that enjoyed mainstream popularity at the same time. As a result, even those with a keen interest in the movement and its history might find themselves hesitating over whether they need to watch another film on the subject. Yet there are important punk performers and scenes that have remained underexplored in previous documentaries. Two recent films, Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché and Punk the Capital: Building a Sound Movement, help complicate the punk story, serving as reminders that early punk was more heterogeneous – and indeed more interesting – than some might realize. 

Though punk retrospectives are often dominated by discussion of white, male musicians, I Am a Cliché focuses on a great punk singer and songwriter who was a biracial woman. As the frontwoman for X-Ray Spex, Mari Elliott, who took the name Poly Styrene as an ironic comment on disposable consumer culture, lent her powerful vocals to defiant tracks dealing with mass culture, power, and identity, notably the well-loved single  “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” I Am a Cliché contains galvanizing performance footage and TV interview snippets that convey the qualities that made Styrene a unique and iconic figure – her bracing voice; her playful, original fashion sense; her observant nature and social conscience. But the film also goes beyond the singer’s public triumphs, offering a nuanced, intimate portrait that belies its title – directors Celeste Bell and Paul Sng avoid falling back on rock and roll clichés. 

Styrene died of breast cancer in 2011, and Bell, her only daughter, found herself thrust into the role of being a steward of her mother’s legacy, even as she was still grieving. Throughout the film, Bell reflects on her mother’s life and their sometimes-fraught relationship, which suffered not only from Styrene’s dedication to her music, but also her struggles with mental illness. Bell and Sng don’t shy away from the latter aspect of Styrene’s life, revealing her sometimes erratic behavior and dangerous neglect of her daughter. 

Yet while the film is honest, it’s also compassionate. It lays out, in heartbreaking detail, the stresses that took a toll on Styrene, including a punishing touring schedule, members of the media routinely commenting on and even mocking her appearance, and friends and bandmates in the punk scene who proved unsympathetic to her pain. The film at once celebrates Styrene’s creativity and courage, and shows how much those things cost her in the aftermath of her initial success. It traces Styrene’s life long after the early days of the punk scene, chronicling the challenges that she faced as well as her resilience and eventual reconciliation with her daughter. This is a deeply human and humane film about a true original.

Though it tells the story of a scene rather than focusing on an individual, Punk the Capital also offers insight into the many forms that punk took in its early days. Directors Paul Bishow and James June Schneider take a deep dive into the history of punk in Washington, D.C. While punk famously took hold in cultural hubs like London, New York, and Los Angeles, the small, unlikely scene in D.C. had an outsized influence, yielding major artists like Bad Brains and Minor Threat. The film features interviews with key members of those bands; examining the fresh perspectives that they brought to punk. Bad Brains, one of relatively few punk bands with only Black members in its original lineup, contrasted the “No Future” nihilism of The Sex Pistols by embracing a philosophy of “P.M.A.” – that is, positive mental attitude – inspired by a self-help book by Napoleon Hill. Minor Threat’s Ian MacKaye wrote about eschewing alcohol and drugs in the song “Straight Edge,” inadvertently inspiring a movement, but also expressing a worldview that differed from the self-destructive stereotypes of rock and roll. To consider these bands is to recognize that punk is mutable – not a uniform sound or philosophy. 

Indeed, the hazy definition of “punk” has been an endless debate among music fans. In Punk the Capital, Dan Palenski, drummer for The Slickee Boys, suggests this definition: “music that’s not a product.” Of course a definition like that could probably lead to endless arguments about who is or isn’t a sellout, but it also seems apt in relation to the D.C. scene. One of the film’s greatest joys is how Bishow and Schneider unearth obscure D.C. acts in addition to well-known bands. The footage and photos of these bands suggest a homegrown scene that was about self-expression rather than commercial interests. To wit: a standout act is the band White Boy, founded by the father-son duo of Mr. Ott and Jake Whipp. Mr. Ott, who looks like an ordinary middle-aged business man on the band’s record sleeves, appears in performance footage wailing into a microphone with a fuzzy green toilet seat cover on his head. It’s clear that White Boy isn’t trying to crack the Top 40. The film also meticulously chronicles the network of record stores, fanzines, and college radio stations that helped to nudge the D.C. scene into existence, showing how the music was supported by, but also helped to form, a new kind of community in a buttoned-up government town. 

Throughout Punk the Capital, one can frequently spot X-Ray Spex records peeking from the walls of record stores or out of the collections of the interviewees, and the film feels like it is in conversation with I Am a Cliché in other ways too. I Am a Cliché recounts how the punk scene, though initially liberating and inspiring, became constricting and destructive to Poly Styrene. Punk the Capital explores similar  consequences,  with interviewees noting that slam dancing and D.C.’s burgeoning hardcore sound became a magnet for aggressive, violent people of all stripes, including white supremacists. Some interviewees recollect how violent depictions of punk rockers – such as the infamous “Next Stop, Nowhere” episode of Quincy M.E. – created a feedback loop, with new fans behaving like the punks they had seen on TV. 

One of punk’s most recognizable figures remains Sid Vicious, the Sex Pistols bassist who famously died of an overdose after being arrested and charged with the murder of his girlfriend Nancy Spungen. The story of Sid and Nancy, mythologized in a 1986 narrative film directed by Alex Cox, has reinforced punk’s association with violence, addiction, and self-destruction. But in truth, the meaning and legacy of punk is as diverse and complex as the many different people who have created and sustained it. Punk the Capital and I Am a Cliché rightfully complicate a familiar narrative.

Victoria Large Written by: