Film Review: Turn It Around: The Story of East Bay Punk

A suitably punky, fast-paced doc that may be long and overly talky but is undeniably comprehensive.
Specialty Releases

For decades, New York, London and Los Angeles have each laid claim to being the inventors of punk rock although, clearly, other places have contributed to keeping the spirit alive with the ’80s shift into American hardcore. Directed by Corbett Redford, Turn It Around: The Story of East Bay Punk makes a point for the East Bay area of the title, specifically the music scenes of San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley, California.

His film couldn’t have a more perfect narrator than Iggy Pop—considered by many to be the grandfather of punk, himself from Michigan—as he utters Redford and Anthony Marchitiello’s narrative with an obvious disdain for the ’60s hippie bands that came out of that region’s “Summer of Love.”

Executive produced by Green Day—probably the biggest and most famous punk band to come from that area—Turn It Around provides firsthand accounts of how the scene came together, glossing over better-known hardcore bands Flipper and the Dead Kennedys to focus more specifically on the bands spawned from Berkeley’s Gilman Street Project.

Forming a band and playing music provided a voice for the East Bay’s disassociated youth, creating a lively scene comprised of partying at shows put on in actual garages. These bands are championed via local radio shows, DIY zines and compilation tapes from the likes of Maximum Rocknroll and Aaron Cometbus. It’s an insular community where local bands supported one another, even if only a few of them beyond Green Day were able to break out nationally.

After exploring the early history of punk in the area, Redford’s film shifts its focus to the Gilman Street club. At first, the non-profit DIY club promoted ideals like non-racism and non-sexism to create a safe space for kids and girls who wanted to play music, dance and have fun. (The doc is named after an early compilation record of the club’s house bands.)

Anyone hoping for Turn It Around to be the definitive Green Day story may be disappointed, because the band isn’t mentioned until 45 minutes in, then not again for another 45 minutes. The film is better at introducing outsiders to lesser-known yet still influential bands with names like Neurosis, Beatnigs, Yeastie Girlz, Operation Ivy, Basic Radio and Crimpshrine. By covering such a wide array of more obscure bands, Redford successfully shows how vast and wide the scene stretched. The film also briefly touches upon bands from smaller suburban territories like Metallica’s tough hometown of El Sobrante, but that’s mostly in passing to get to the story of the Gilman.

Because the doc tries its best to cover as many bands as possible—careening through the ’80s into the early ’90s without ever blinking—there’s the danger of none of the bands getting enough time. There’s also a real stigma surrounding the hardcore scene from outsiders who see these shows as packs of rabid, macho slam dancers in a violent mosh pit. The movie does little to dispel those “myths” with lots of archival pictures of such, animated to the fast-paced music.

Yes, there’s even some early archival footage of a very young incarnation of Green Day, which is why the band’s fans might end up being more interested in this movie than anyone else, even if the movie is not specifically about them. (But in some ways, it really is.)

At over two and a half hours, Turn It Around is long. Much of that time is comprised of the type of overly gushy talking-head interviews we’ve seen before. This might get tiring to some, because there’s so much information to absorb, but it makes the film a comprehensive overview of the scene. That should help it appeal to fans of hardcore and those interested in rock history, but probably will do little for others.

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