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Rekindling the punk flame

A spate of upcoming documentaries shows that a movement some had declared dead may be newly relevant for today's youth.

August 23, 2005|Shana Ting Lipton | Special to The Times

On Dec. 8, 1980, the world mourned former Beatle John Lennon's tragic death at the hands of a deranged fan. Just a day earlier, an underground Los Angeles society numbering perhaps in the hundreds mourned the passing of its own idol, Darby Crash, the 22-year-old singer for the punk rock band the Germs.

Although Crash garnered only a fraction of the posthumous praise that Lennon did, his sacred circle may yet expand as a slew of film projects celebrates his life and the lives of other bygone punk antiheroes. No mere exercise in nostalgia, the films, say some of those involved, offer a glimpse into an era of renewed relevance for today's youth.

A biopic on Crash, "What We Do Is Secret," directed by Rodger Grossman, has just wrapped and is slated to hit the early 2006 film festivals. A documentary about the Germs directed by Dan Griffith and based on the 2002 book "Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times and Short Life of Darby Crash and the Germs" is currently in production.

Looking more broadly at the scene, the documentary "Punk: Attitude" debuted in July on the Independent Film Channel (the network home to "Henry's Film Corner," in which Henry Rollins of the L.A. hard-core punk band Black Flag critiques movies). "New York Doll," a documentary from Greg Whiteley about the late Arthur "Killer" Kane of the New York Dolls, is slated to hit movie screens in late October. And the documentaries "Punk's Not Dead" and "American Hardcore" are also slotted for next year's film festival circuit.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 24, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Punk documentaries -- An article in Tuesday's Calendar section about upcoming films chronicling the punk era identified Dick Hebdige as a professor of film studies at UC Santa Barbara. Hebdige is also a professor of art studies there.

If punk is dead, as has been said, it appears to be kicking and digging its way out of the grave.

Seminal punk groups from the '70s and early '80s -- the Germs, the New York Dolls, X, the Sex Pistols, Black Flag, the Clash and the Ramones among them -- have been credited with influencing a generation of musical artists and fans. Crash, in particular, was an arbiter of West Coast punk style, giving birth to devout followers known as "Crash Trash." In 1980, says Rodney Bingenheimer, host of the 29-year-old KROQ-FM radio show "Rodney on the Roq," "Darby came back from London with this huge mohawk after meeting Adam Ant. He started the whole mohawk thing."

It was Bingenheimer's radio show -- a trailblazer in giving punk bands airtime -- that planted the seed in director Grossman's mind that would eventually become the film "What We Do Is Secret." Grossman, 38, says he first heard the Germs' album of the same name on Bingenheimer's show in 1982 "and went out the next day and bought the record. It changed my life completely."

Grossman's passion for the scene drove him through 10 years of researching, cajoling recalcitrant subjects, dealing with budget hurdles and facing competition from other filmmakers. "It was a great unheralded era of music history. Post-MTV, post-techno, everything seems so boring and packaged today," Grossman says.

Steven Blush, the author of "American Hardcore: A Tribal History," the book on which one of the documentaries is based, agrees that part of the attraction of punk was that it never allowed itself to be co-opted. "In a world where everything is a sellout, a TV commercial, a blur of Hollywood nonsense, it's the one thing that stands as pure."

Today, though, it appears that this is no longer true. The Ramones' song "Blitzkrieg Bop" is the soundtrack for a cellular phone commercial. Virgin Megastore sells new T-shirts advertising the old punk nightclub CBGB. That club, on the verge of being evicted from its longtime New York address, has been offered a spot in Las Vegas. "CBGB has a $2-million-a-year T-shirt business, but they have an empty club half the nights," muses Blush.

Acting as a sort of unofficial punk historian, Blush differentiates the traditional punk scene from the offshoot hard-core movement of bands like Black Flag and Minor Threat. The former, of the more androgynous, bratty intellectual variety, has its roots in movement godfather Iggy Pop. The latter is often associated with brute male force and, says Blush, a political message. It was a force that shaped him ("Aside from my parents, the other place I got my values was the hard-core punk scene") and one that is again relevant.

Hard-core was a haven for rebellious left-wing youth in the Reagan era, he says. And while the "American Hardcore" film takes place 20 years ago, "all the same issues are still there. It's really about today," Blush says, drawing parallels to the Bush administration.

Guitarist Pat Smear recalls how the Germs, somewhat accidentally, became "the gateway between punk and hard-core." They were forced to play hard-core shows in the South Bay with bands like Black Flag after they were banned from L.A. for vandalizing so many venues. It is this very tactile and often grimy abandon, according to some, that is fostering romantic images of classic punk today.

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