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Striking the same old chords: the bane of the punk documentary 

Wednesday, Apr 25 2007
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Much like the aping of old Ramones tunes by new bands, punk documentaries often strike repeatedly at the same few chords. There's the ol' time capsule on punk's first wave of authentic outcasts and their rudimentary skills. There are the issues of who sold out when. And there's a general sense that the magic that transpired at the start could never reappear. It's no longer an act of rebellion to simply start a noisy band and stick a pin through your ear. Since The Decline of Western Civilization there have been valuable, inspiring, and entertaining lessons in punk's cinematic seminars. But how many more times can we hear the same heroic stories about crashing on festering couches and doing it for the fans, man, before someone offers an alternate perspective on this DIY culture?

Susan Dynner's film Punk's Not Dead doesn't crack the code, unfortunately, but she offers a couple good twists in the tale. Hers is a jam-packed rockumentary displaying dozens of crotchety and good-humored legends on tape, from the Subhumans to local lynchpin Fat Mike. And in her movie — showing here as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival — nearly every discussion diverts into multiple viewpoints.

The problem is that the discussion doesn't stray far from punk's oft-acknowledged growing pains. The 2003 documentary Afro-Punk was a bit clunky, but it nonetheless offered a fresh perspective of what it's like to be a "minority in a minority community." Punk's Not Dead skips over issues of race, sexuality, and gender and, for that matter, a long list of more generally challenging topics that would have made for a better film: Is there a new way to subvert social paradigms when the old ways have been co-opted? Do we need a more threatening music style to challenge the political system? For all the talk of political punk, what effect does, say, a Green Day album have on young voters?

Even with all the usual re-hashing, though, there's merit to Dynner's movie, mostly in the amount of research she put into this survey. Clips from Donahue, CHiPs, and Quincy M.E. are hilarious vestiges from an era clueless about interacting with a counterculture movement. Now that punk's just another pit stop on MTV's spring break tours, interviews with the heads of Hot Topic and the Warped Tour offer insight into the difficulties in delivering small bands to large audiences vs. being just another corporation. Social Distortion's Mike Ness, X's John Doe, and perennial talking head Henry Rollins marvel at how the pricks who "threw apples" at the outsiders back in the day now buy their kids purple hair dye because society embraces punk's fashion statements. And Ian MacKaye of Fugzai fame waxes enthusiastically about the lasting friendships he formed in D.C.'s music community.

Using song lyrics, television footage, cartoons, photographs, and interviews with bands, industry types, and journalists, Dynner displays the same intrepid work ethic as the musicians she documents. The sheer number of subjects from both the U.K. and the U.S. is impressive. Dynner moves between the '70s acts still at it like Sham 69 and Stiff Little Fingers and '90s television personalities like the Offspring, Green Day, and Pennywise. Along the way, she offers a sense of the stretch marks these bands felt as their world slowly arched toward selling shoes and grabbing Grammys.

Punk's newest household names are afforded none of history's rosy glow. Not that the Used, Good Charlotte, My Chemical Romance, and the like deserve protection from the critics. The magazine darlings are mostly on the defensive here, presenting their cases while their elders slag them as frauds with accountants. Watching these young celebrities squirm is good fun while putting punk snobbery on display. All the money in the world can't buy Sum 41 cred when one (pretty dumb) heckler challenges its punkhood, and frontman Deryck Whibley admits that he's careful not to call his band "punk" for fear of getting "made fun of by our idols." And he's right — the shittalking happens moments later.

Dynner observes the contradictions in the definitions of the genre. Punk's not sappy relationship drivel, it's "hippies with teeth," the old guard snarls. But then Dynner shows examples from the Buzzcocks to the Damned of song titles about love. So is punk political or emotional? Is it main stage at Warped Tour or a no-name act at the U.K.'s grassroots Wasted Festival? Punk's Not Dead doesn't manufacture answers. For Dynner, a photographer who came up in the early-'80s D.C. scene, the core seems to center on a supportive community. Her closing segments on a flophouse called the Drunk Tank show the original spirit of kids bonding over basic values — or at the very least beer and basement shows — making their elders proud, and proving that some of that original magic does indeed still occur.

Other SFIFF picks: The Old, Weird America: Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music is a profile of Smith, a fastidious curator of odd folk. Smith's 1952 collection of lost treasures from rural America, Anthology of American Folk Music, inspired scenes from Greenwich Village to San Francisco as well as Dylan, the Beatles, and Phillip Glass. The film boggs down a bit with live footage from recent tribute concerts. But the music — ballads, historical pieces, and flat-out spooky tunes — and Smith's fascination with preserving it is interesting regardless. Alternately, Fabricating Tom Zé benefits from its subject still being alive — and in the case of this Brazilian Tropicalia artist, very much so. Zé is occasionally mercurial in mood, but mostly he comes off as an incredibly charismatic musician, self-effacing as he is proud. Great stuff.

Punk's Not Dead plays at Sundance Cinemas Kabuki on Friday, May 4, at 6:30 p.m. and again on Tuesday, May 8, at 3:30 p.m. For more info on this and other films visit www.sfiff.org.

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Jennifer Maerz

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