Ever wonder which movies inspire your favorite bands or how filmmakers work with artists to compile your favorite soundtracks? Sound to Screen is a regular feature that explores where film and music intersect. This time, we asked punk bands which movies got punk right.
In director Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room, opening this week, four kids in a touring punk band find themselves in the midst of their worst nightmare. Coaxed by financial necessity into playing a skinhead bar in the middle of nowhere, they end up locked in the green room after the show with a dead body, an angry white supremacist, and zero chance of making a clean escape.
At least they have one thing going for them. “That green room looks nice!” exclaimed Sean Bonnette of AJJ (fka Andrew Jackson Jihad) after watching the trailer. “My main complaint about green rooms is there’s never any trash can, and I think I saw a trash can in that one. There might have even been a mini fridge.”
Those extra amenities aren’t all that makes Green Room’s premise seem a bit far-fetched to actual touring punk bands. But those of us who have watched the film seem to have all come away with the same take: This movie gets punk right. Saulnier shows off his love for the scene in the little details, and it pays off with a film that’s all the more fun (and terrifying) because bands can recognize themselves in it.
Green Room got us thinking about other films that capture the spirit of punk in ways that seem authentic, if not exactly real. So we asked the members of four touring punk bands — Bonnette, Stephanie Luke of The Coathangers, PJ Russo of Night Birds, and Shehzaad Jiwani of Greys — to tell us their favorite movies that “got punk right.” A few of their selections are kind of ridiculous, but that’s kind of the point. Or as Russo puts it, “Punks dress like idiots, so it’s going to look silly.”
Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979)
“I think my favorite movie about punk is Rock ‘n’ Roll High School,” says Bonnette. “It’s incredibly silly. And that silliness, in my mind, makes it probably the most authentic punk movie.” Pressed to name the silliest thing about Allan Arkush’s musical comedy, he responds with a laugh. “Kind of just the fact that the Ramones are in it!”
The seminal NYC punks are at the height of their powers here, lending their trademark goofiness to a plot that follows rock ‘n’ roller Riff Randell (P.J. Soles) as she and her friends stage a raucous coup of their high school with some help from Joey and the boys. Acting may not be one of the aforementioned powers, but how much can you really ask of a film that represents the platonic ideal of party punk?
Probably the best thing about Rock ‘n’ Roll High School is just how damn earnest it is in its stupidity. “The thing about punk is that if you take it too seriously, you’re totally missing the point,” says Russo. “Especially when you’re talking about a fictional film. There’s goofy shit that goes on. I mean, that’s all you really have to show.”
The name says it all. Way too many films try to depict punks as one-dimensional urban street rats, totally ignoring the fact that a lot of them grow up trapped in that most dreaded of places: the suburbs. Directed by Penelope Spheeris, this 1983 film follows a group of disaffected kids who band together and squat in abandoned suburban tract homes, developing their own flawed version of a punk utopia.
“It’s one of my all-time favorite movies,” says Russo. “There are definitely scenes that poke fun at punk and make it kind of this weird exploitation movie, but at the same time, they didn’t hire actors to play punks in that movie.” The film’s cast includes Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers (“That dude was legit back in the day! He played bass for Fear!”) and Chris Pedersen, who played guitar in a kind of dopey hardcore band called The Patriots. “You can actually see The Patriots’ spraypaint tag throughout the movie,” Russo notes, and it’s those kind of touches that elevate the film to something more than a punk parody.
“It’s cool because it’s not like that bullshit episode of Quincy where it’s like, ‘These punks are on the prowl!’ It actually shows every character in the movie as a different sort of person. You have the brutish, violent skinhead dude, you’ve got the dude who’s just messed up on drugs and really fucking up, and then you’ve got the little kid who’s just discovering it. I think that movie doesn’t get enough credit for what it actually is.”
Repo Man (1984)
Most punks come to Repo Man by way of the film’s epic soundtrack, and Shehzaad Jiwani of Toronto noise-punk band Greys is no different. “Cam, our guitar player, told me about it years ago,” he remembers. “We were always trying to find the soundtrack, which now is pretty common.” Probably one of the better punk comps of its era, the Repo Man soundtrack leans heavily on the LA scene — Suicidal Tendencies, Black Flag, and Fear are all represented, and the Circle Jerks are actually in the movie. It’s worth seeking out, but the film might even top it.
“I didn’t grow up in the ‘80s, so I couldn’t really tell you what it was like, but it definitely gets the aesthetic across,” says Jiwani. “It’s a lot more nihilistic, and it’s played up a lot, but it’s coming from a place of love for that scene and that movement. And especially at a time where people didn’t know about that. Hardcore wasn’t a household name. You couldn’t just like buy an outfit at a mall.”
Repo Man follows a young punk named Otto (Emilio Estevez), who starts working for a repossession agent (Harry Dean Stanton) and quickly takes to the fast life of chasing after cars and drugs. The movie isn’t a parody or anything, and it actually hits on some hard-to-swallow truths about the punk life. One scene, in which Otto’s friend Duke dies in his arms after a botched liquor store robbery, especially resonated with Russo.
“When [Duke] gets killed and he’s all like, “Society made me what I am,” it’s kind of a cool comment on how punks get a little too into whatever sort of bullshit they align themselves with. You have Emilio Estevez being a little bit more grounded in that scene, like, ‘No, dude, society didn’t do anything to you. You’re just a punk who made a bad decision, and now you’re paying for it.’ That scene alone is definitely very, very authentic.”
Hard Core Logo (1996)
Being a Canadian in a punk band, Jiwani feels compelled to bring up 1996 mockumentary Hard Core Logo in any conversation about punk movies. “[Director] Bruce McDonald is kind of a Canadian film legend,” he explains, “and he made this movie about a band on their last tour, and he really fucking nailed it. The tour around in basically this U-Haul truck, and from what I understand it’s based on a lot of stories about D.O.A., the Canadian hardcore band who are kind of like our Black Flag.”
Though the film came out when Jiwani was just a small kid, he can relate to the way McDonald portrays touring with a bunch of smelly guys in a van. “The destitution of being on the road is so accurately portrayed,” he laughs, “and all the little arguments that you get into when you’re a band that’s just been introduced to the idea of becoming famous. The relationship between [lead actors Hugh Dillon and Callum Keith Rennie] is so great, and it totally nails the whole ‘Punk getting a whiff of success’ thing.”
Jiwani and his bandmates aren’t the only Canadians to fall for Hard Core Logo. Rennie plays a character in the film named Billy Tallent, which eventually inspired the name of one of Ontario’s biggest rock bands. Of course, their big claim to fame among the punk community is performing perhaps the worst Fugazi cover of all time, but you can’t have it all.
SLC Punk! (1998)
If you went to middle school or high school in the late ‘90s, there’s a good chance SLC Punk! marked your first encounter with the wide world of punk rock. “I think that was a gateway drug that got a lot of people into punk in the first place,” says Bonnette. “It’s got a lot of replay value when you’re a kid.”
Stephanie Luke of Atlanta punk trio The Coathangers agrees. “I really like SLC Punk!.”
Directed by James Merendino, the film starts out with a fairly brilliant premise: stick a couple of disaffected punks (Matthew Lillard and Michael A. Goorjian) in America’s most conservative city, sit back, and watch the fireworks. Looking back from a more mature perspective, it’s easier to call out the cheesiness and realize that SLC Punk! is hopelessly mired in stereotypes. Not that it should matter. “I watched it not too long ago and it was like, ‘Oh shit, it’s not as good as I remember!’” says Luke. “But at the same time, it is because there’s a time and place for that.”
Bonnette remembers latching onto the film simply because it offered so many alternative lifestyles to choose from. “That one has so many different characters that you can relate to,” he says. “Everyone can sort of pick their favorites and, for lack of a better term, kind of emulate them.” For all of its iconoclastic posturing, that’s kind of what punk is about in the end. The scene emulates itself just as much as it rebels against the norm, but there’s a weird sort of comfort in being able to choose what you conform to.