PUNK'S NOT DEADNR
It's a hell of an accomplishment to make a kinetic, hard-driving and visually arresting talking-heads documentary (as opposed to a Talking Heads documentary, which Punk’s Not Dead decidedly is not). Giving voice to those punk-rockers in the trenches, whether veterans of the ’70s or latter-day performers who weren't even born then, filmmaker Susan Dynner provides an authenticity that's both informed by a fan's inside knowledge and solidified by a journalistic breadth and reach. It's not the first punk-rock documentary, nor will it be the last, and that speaks to the beating heart of a music that's much more than safety pins, Mohawks and CBGB.
In fact, you'd need a lot more than a few safety pins to pin down what punk rock is and what it means, a point lost neither to Dynner nor to the dozens of performers and the smattering of music journalists, record-company executives and others who cumulatively sum up the state of the music in the early 21st century. It's a recognizable sound, a range of recognizable looks and a recognizable attitude—though you don't need to wear black t-shirts to listen to it any more than you'd need a beret and a goatee to listen to jazz.
Dynner traces the roots of punk quickly and well—what kind of documentary would it be without snippets of The Clash, The Ramones and The Sex Pistols, without news footage of inflation, unemployment and disco?—to focus on what's happening now. That punk became less commercially viable for a time beginning in the late ’80s isn't disputed. The whole notion of commercial viability, however, most certainly is. Punk-rock documentaries from Penelope Spheeris' The Decline of Western Civilization (1981) on up have all commented on the music's down-’n’-dirty, do-it-yourself aesthetic, but we're a couple of generations removed by now. The thriving existence of both the survivors and the inspired after all these years means that punk has not just talked the talk but walked the walk, flipped the finger, spit at authority and the occasional audience, and lived to sing the tale.
That perspective of decades removed allows for observations that even 1992's 1991: The Year Punk Broke couldn't offer. "We didn't think we were hip and underground," Punk magazine co-founder and professional punk raconteur Legs McNeil tells Dynner of the ’70s New York scene. "We thought we were selling out. We thought we were doing very commercial stuff." Now with Moms in Mohawks taking their kids to punk shows today, old-timer John Doe of X observes, "It's kinda wonderful and kinda sad that [punk] doesn't have the shock value it used to. But it's kinda cool that if a kid wants to dye their hair blue, they don't have to put up with all that grief" that plagued the first wave. And did it ever—Dynner's dug up some Quincy, M.E. and Phil Donahue clips that are hilarious in their cluelessness and earnestness, respectively.
Has there been a punk renaissance? Can one speak of "second-generation punk"? Does the mall-chain Hot Topic commodify the culture against the spirit of the music, or provide an agora for punk-loving kids in places around the country where they'd have no other touchstone? The movie can drag a bit after the first hour—do we really need to cover much the same ground with the U.S.'s Warped Tour and the U.K.'s Wasted Festival?—and it gets miserly with identifying captions after the first instance of an interviewee.
But then, the name's not so important when a latter-day punk-band member talks about the wonder he felt when touring America, and marvels about finding "people who feel the same way about things that you do." And when Dynner gives time to homemade hellos sent in by punk bands from New Zealand, Belgium, Israel, Lithuania, Russia and more, well, what can you say but, the kids are alright.