Film Review: Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington, DC (1980-1990)

A portrait of the Washington, D.C. punk-rock scene that’s awash in affection but light on critical context.
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Yet another entry in the never-ending parade of nostalgic subculture documentaries, Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington, DC (1980-1990) details the rise of the Washington, D.C. punk-rock scene, which gave birth to a series of notable hardcore bands whose influence, at least to some degree, could be felt in mainstream-friendly ’90s rock acts. Writer-director Scott Crawford is intimately familiar with this milieu, having grown up documenting it at the time via a local ’zine, and he even briefly appears as a character in his own film, spied in photos at the bottom of stages amidst slam-dancing fans caught up in the music’s breakneck energy. As such, he brings both knowledge and affection to his portrait of both the artists who made D.C. such a punk hotspot in the early and mid-’80s–most of whom hailed from well-to-do families, and embraced punk because of the social ills they witnessed in the city–and the roiling social setting in which they flourished.

That environment was one of mounting poverty, drugs, crime and general urban flight by D.C.’s middle class–a set of circumstances that gave birth to bands like Bad Brains, The Teen Idles, Minor Threat, S.O.A., Government Issue, Untouchables, Gray Matter, Soulside and Scream, whose tunes, per punk tradition, prized chaotic fury over technical skill. If this budding movement had an unofficial leader, it was Ian MacKaye, a bald-headed, well-spoken kid who pioneered D.C.’s sound first in The Teen Idles and then later with Minor Threat and Fugazi, and also helped shape its reputation, primarily thanks to a Minor Threat song called “Straight Edge” that wound up becoming a rallying cry-cum-designation for kids uninterested in drugs and alcohol. In Salad Days, MacKaye articulately lays out both the specifics of his own musical origins and the anti-consumerist, anti-conformity ethos that guided him and so many of his punk brethren, many of whom would find a de facto home on MacKaye’s Discord Records label, which put out albums by countless bands from the region.

Crawford’s film delivers a steady stream of interviews with prominent D.C. artists (including Henry Rollins and Dave Grohl) who help explain the scene’s evolution–specifically the emergence of the more emotive “emo-core” of the ’80s latter half–while also painting a vivid picture of the DIY spirit that drove kids to form bands, book shows, schedule tours, and make records without a pre-existing local infrastructure to do such things, much less major-label industry guidance or support. What it doesn’t do, however, is delve deeply enough into the larger effect such acts had on those who followed in their wake, thus mitigating any sort of contextual sense of why bands like Bad Brains, SOA, or Fugazi were–or still are–of great importance. More frustrating still, though, is that in its standard-issue assemblage of talking-head soundbites, archival photos and grainy performance clips, Salad Days comes off as so aesthetically formulaic that it never fully emulates the against-the-grain attitude of its subject matter.

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