If you lived through the glory days of punk in the late 70s to early 90s, congratulations.
If you didn’t, watch these documentaries. They may well be the only way to get the vanilla taste of the last 20 years out of your mouth.
The Decline of Western Civilization
Filmed through 1979 to 1980, The Decline of Western Civilization is a must-see documentary for any music fan, punk enthusiast or not. Directed by Penelope Spheeris, the film covers the Los Angeles punk rock scene over two volatile years, featuring some of the rawest live performances you’ll ever lay your eyes on. But the most intriguing parts of this documentary are the windows it provides into the personal lives of some of punk’s most influential artists. Take a tour around 19-year-old Ron Reyes of Black Flag’s $16 a month flophouse, and listen to the Germs’ Darby Crash explain how he hurts himself onstage to ward off boredom as he fries bacon and eggs in his kitchen. It might be worth warning that there are some racial slurs and homophobic taunts scattered throughout this film—but Spheeris by no means glorifies this behaviour. The Decline Of Western Civilization is an uncensored look at the punk scene at the time, warts and all, and its confronting language and subject matter is an honest depiction of its time. Featuring Alice Bag Band, Black Flag, Catholic Discipline, Circle Jerks, FEAR, Germs, and X, you can watch the whole thing here.
Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington, D.C. (1980-90)
Scott Crawford’s exhaustively researched film manages to tell a decade-long story in one hour and 45 minutes. Released in 2014, Salad Days is the most exciting and aggressive history course you’ll ever take. Featuring insights from Ian MacKaye, Henry Rollins, Mark Sullivan and a hell of a lot more, it documents the rise of the DIY punk and D.C hardcore movement, and the violence that it fuelled. It also provides an interesting take on the division that occurred within the movement as bands like Fugazi gained popularity whilst taking a stand against the misogyny and homophobia that was rampant in the scene. Featuring amazing footage of Bad Brains, Fugazi, Faith, Fire Party and more.
Speaking of Fugazi, Jem Cohen’s documentary, Instrument, is a sprawling two-hour dedication to the groundbreaking East Coast band. Filmed over 11 years from 1987 through to 1998, it’s the most intimate portrait of the notoriously private band that exists, featuring incredible footage of Fugazi’s obscenely wild live shows, as well as interviews with the band and commentary from fans that serve as amazing snapshots in time. Visually, it’s as raw as Fugazi’s sound, with all footage shot on Super 8, 16mm and video. I actually had the chance to talk to Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto about the film when it screened in Australia earlier this year—you can read the interview here.
We Jam Econo
The Minutemen might just be the most loveable trio in punk history. As homegrown and DIY as they come, the LA band burst onto the scene in 1980 and tore through it for five years until the tragic death of their singer, D. Boon, in a car accident at only 27-years-old. Whether you’re a huge fan or completely unfamiliar with the band, this documentary will worm its way into your heart and leave you feeling like you’ve made three new friends in D. Boon, Mike Watt and George Hurley. A reminder to hold your friends close, tell them you love them and to never take yourself too seriously, soundtracked by their famously scratchy style of punk that has been influencing bands for decades.
A Band Called Death
The 2012 documentary A Band Called Death is what music documentaries are all about. It has it all: vintage footage, behind the scenes breakdowns, family photos, and ironically, death. The film documents three teenage brothers—David, Bobby and Dannis Hackney—from Detroit in the early 70s who formed a punk band in their spare bedroom. Their sound was like nothing anyone had heard before, and it took Detroit by surprise. But their revolutionary sound soon caught on, causing near-riots when they played cabarets and garage parties around their city. They only ever released one song as a band in 1975, fading into obscurity until Drag City released their old recordings in 2009.