Safety Pin Stuck On The Screen: 10 Punk Rock Movies

When it comes to biographical movies, historical accuracy seems like almost impossible to achieve. The past can’t be reconstructed and you can’t tell what exactly happened unless you were there in your own flesh. You over-stylize it and it’s automatically ruined. It’s even more likely to ruin a movie about punk, because it’s easier to cross the line with all its grotesque characteristics, cutting edge imagery and overwhelming sensation.

This list excludes punk rock documentaries because there are obviously tons of them and some are mighty good ones and presents ten films that are either punk biopics or movies where actual punk musicians appeared in them as themselves. It’s an as close to reality as can be showcase of punks on fictional film…

10. Punk Rock Holocaust (2004)

Punk Rock Holocaust is a slasher comedy directed by Doug Sakmann, that features roles and performances from almost ever band on the 2003 Vans Warped Tour, including Rancid, Pennywise, Simple Plan, The Used, Less Than Jake, Andrew WK, Dropkick Murphies and many more, trying to survive the murders that happen every day on the tour and figure out who’s behind them. This b-movie sprung a sequel in 2007, but surely there’s no need for those to obtain two spots on our list, one is enough.

9. CBGB (2013)

The hopes for CBGB were set high, not only because it was a biopic about Hilly Kristal and his notorious 70s club, but because in it there would be depictions of everyone in the New York punk scene of that insane era, from The Ramones to Blondie. Strangely enough Alan Rickman, who is more than decent starring as Kristal, wasn’t the only Harry Potter cast member in the film. Rupert Grint plays Cheetah Chrome from The Dead Boys and when those two are on the screen together the effect is pretty bad, as you can’t help but see a punk Professor Snape counteracting with a punk Ron Weasley in an alternative punk Potter universe, like a bad high. Add to that the pretty mediocre portrayals of Lou Reed and Iggy Pop and what you get is a kind of mess of a movie. To be fair, CBGB has its moments and it’s entertaining enough, so overall it might not be that bad, but given its subject, the time and place where it’s set, it could have been a hundred times better.

8. Human Highway (1982)

Human Highway is a gem of a movie directed by [drum roll…] Neil Young in 1982 and featuring Devo as nuclear waste disposal techs. It’s not that much of a punk movie but it has punk aesthetics and a rare artistic taste for a b-movie, it even features an exciting 10-minute jam of Hey Hey My My by Neil Young and Devo in a weird dream sequence.

7. The Basketball Diaries (1995)

The Basketball Diaries isn’t about punk at all, but it is a biopic about the turbulent, drug-fueled early life of a punk legend, the punk poet, author and musician Jim Carroll, adapted from the man’s book of memoirs of the same name. It’s directed by Scott Kalvert and it was the movie that established Leo as a serious actor in the world of movies. The film later gained some controversial status after the numerous high school shootings that occurred in real life (including Columbine) and were supposed to be very similar to a dream sequence in the film.

6. 24 Hour Party People (2002)

24 Hour Party People chronicles the Manchester music scene from 1976 to 1992 through the narration of TV reporter, music enthusiast, producer and club owner, Tony Wilson, played by Steve Coogan to very positive reviews. Through his legendary local TV show, So It Goes and the creation of Factory Records, the film’s first half focuses on the British punk movement of that era, originated at the historic Sex Pistols gig at the Lesser Free Trade Hall, with bands like The Buzzcocks, The Durutti Column, A Certain Ratio, but most of all Joy Division and their dark and enigmatic leader. The film’s gimmick of the narrator often breaking the fourth wall and talk directly to the audience was mostly received as an innovative maneuver, while it being too stylized and overly demonstrating lead some critics to accuse it of being inaccurate and unauthentic. Midway through the first act, Wilson the character, with the fimmakers probably aware of the negative reactions the film might caused, delivers a self-defense line to almost explain the movie’s initial intentions: “I agree with John Ford – When you have to choose between the truth and the legend, print the legend”. Michael Winterbottom’s chameleonic qualities shine once more in this one. The film’s second act is entirely focused on Hacienda, the Happy Mondays and Factory’s demise. 24 Hour Party People is playful enough to keep you entertained for a couple of hours and it’s a good movie in general, but if you want to see something more accurate and representative about post-punk and the Manchester scene of those times, see a few spots higher in this list.

5. Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979)

Produced by the legendary Roger Corman and directed by Allan Arkush, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School was initially Corman’s attempt to produce again a similar film with the modern teen films he had made in the 60s. The Ramones stepped in as the film’s main characters at the last minute, because due to a conflict of schedules Cheap Trick couldn’t be available. Scream queen PJ Soles is great as Riff Randell, the Ramones’ fan who waits in line for three days to get tickets to see the band and give them the song Rock ‘n’ Roll High School she had written for them, but of course nothing goes as planned and after miscellaneous adventures, the film climaxes in a frenzied finale, including the Ramones at their peak and a nice dose of high energy rock ‘n’ roll. There’s no punk movie list without Rock ‘n’ Roll High School in it, pure retro trash entertainment.

4. What We Do Is Secret (2007)

What We Do Is Secret has been praised more for Shane West’s performance as Darby Crash and his uncanny resemblance to him, than for being a good movie. The Germs were one of the most iconic LA punk bands of the late 70s, who left only an album and a few more recordings behind them, but their explosive live act and their charismatic leader who became one more tragic figure in punk’s history, were for the ages. The film was in development for many years and had numerous setbacks until its release in 2009, but neither the critics nor the fans in general thought the anticipation was worthy. Casting-wise the producers did a great job bringing in West, a young actor, punk enthusiast and singer for the pop-punk group Jonny Was, as well as Bijou Philips and Rick Gonzales who were both good at the roles as Lorna Doom and Pat Smear respectively. The music heard in the film isn’t by the original Germs and that usually is a turn-off when it comes to biopics, but this time it all worked quite well in that matter. All music’s been re-recorded by the film’s music producer (and original Germ) Pat Smear, who also used Bolles and Doom (also original Germs) and helped the actors learn to play the instruments, so to achieve a live feel. The story of Darby Crash is tragic but fascinating and What We Do Is Secret may often feel a bit clumsy at times, yet it’s an honest film that approaches its subject with care and respect.

3. Control (2007)

Closer has its flaws. The first impression I got from Sam Riley as Ian Curtis when I first saw it in 2007 was that he was just too good looking to play the part and that the film was generally trying too hard to convince that it’s an accurate depiction of the facts that occurred around Joy Division that time. During some more viewings in the years that followed, I kind of adjusted to it, ignored the flaws and was convinced that Closer is actually a very good movie. Anton Corbijn having been at the right place and time with the band when it was all happening, was definitely the right choice for directing this movie. Glorious black and white was the most appropriate option to achieve the right atmosphere, matching the band’s evidence from that era being almost exclusively in black and white photos taken by Corbijn himself. It turned out that Riley was excellent at the part, approaching Curtis’ dark character with respect and the right amount of guts. The flaws are still there, with the most obvious one being that the film’s narrative is exclusively from Deborah Curtis’ (Ian’s widow) point of view, therefore not entirely objective to the real events or what possibly any Joy Division fan would be looking for in such a film. In his brief times on this earth, Ian Curtis wasn’t documented enough as a person to leave behind a clear image of what he was like in his personal life. Closer, just like any other movie about punk and artists of his caliber, speculates and tries to be as accurate as possible. It succeeds in depicting Manchester as a dark and gloomy environment around an icon that defined a genre and influenced the generations to come and gains the blessings of most of the people who were actually there then. It is flawed but it’s also admirable.

2. Sid And Nancy (1986)

Sometimes Sid And Nancy feels like almost unbearable to take in. The real Sid and Nancy were two violent, horrible characters who lived almost their entire heroin induced, self destructive lives aggressively, through pain and agony until both’s ultimate demise. Both Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb are insanely good at their parts and their dedication in the film clearly shows and quite deservedly pays off. Oldman even had to be hospitalized when he lost too much weight for the role, by eating only "steamed fish and lots of melon" for quite a while and he was also the movie’s only factor praised by John Lydon, who was utterly appalled by the movie, blaming the director Alex Cox for not consulting with him, being inaccurate about historic events and glorifying drug abuse. “It definitely glorifies it at the end when that stupid taxi drives off into the sky. That’s such nonsense,” writes Lydon in his book Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs. Sid And Nancy is miles away from Alex Cox’s other punk movie, the brilliant Repo Man, but it’s a vibrant film that has to deal with punk maybe less than it has to deal with junk and the controversial lives of a couple of famous addicts.

1. The Runaways (2010)

In 2010 Floria Sigismondi was a music video director who wanted to approach her feature film directorial debut about The Runaways more like a coming-of-age tale than a biopic and essentially succeeded in depicting those girls more like troubled teenagers growing up than upcoming rock stars. Both Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning in the leading roles are excellent as Joan Jett and Cherie Currie, so is Michael Shannon as the eccentric Kim Fowley, the man behind the original idea of forming an all-girl rock band and eventually The Runaways’ manager. The bright 1970s California Valley, broken homes, drug addiction, egotistic confrontations, the typical rock star tragedy, enthusiastic talent and the love of rock ‘n’ roll, all are ingredients that make this movie a joy to watch. Jett’s story of hope and skill balances Currie’s one of self destruction and misfortune and as the latter descends in a downward spiral, the other rises to fame and glory, all that given by Currie’s own point of view, as the film is based on her autobiographical book Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway. It follows the dynamics of the music it represents: raw, rebellious and conclusively moving.

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