Shout! Factory // 2005 // 104 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // February 5th, 2011
"If it happened before, it can happen again." -- Director Don Letts
Punk: Attitude is a good documentary only if you know absolutely nothing (and really, absolutely nothing) about punk rock or rock music in general. It's not that the film isn't competently made or full of facts -- it's that it's redundant. There's little or nothing here that you haven't already heard in countless other punk and music documentaries or read in countless punk and music books. Anyone versed in even the basics of rock history will know everything seen here, and the presentation is adequate but hardly revelatory. Letts' quote may have been intended to be inspiring but it ends up as uncomfortably more self-revealing than he probably intended.
Punk is at least a film that knows its stuff. Letts, after all, was a legendary figure in the English punk scene. He was the roommate of Sex Pistols front man John Lydon, he introduced reggae to the members of the Clash, he made short films and promos for Lydon's post-punk outfit Public Image Ltd., and he was a member of Clash guitarist Mick Jones' spin-off group Big Audio Dynamite. Consequently, his credibility is such that he was able to line up a string of interviews with some fairly notable figures. Though Lydon is conspicuously absent, the film does include interviews with Pistols guitarist Steve Jones and bassist Glen Matlock, Buzzcocks leaders Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto, Siouxsie Sioux, the Damned's Captain Sensible, and Clash members Jones and Paul Simonon. That's just on the English side. The film also includes contributions from former New York Dolls David Johansen, Arthur Kane, and Syl Sylvain, MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer, Suicide keyboardist Martin Rev, Dead Kennedys front man Jello Biafra, Sonic Youth leader Thurston Moore, and hardcore punk titan Henry Rollins. Letts has also included some archival film footage that illustrates the story perfectly. There are the Sex Pistols on live British TV, swearing so profusely that they became household names in England literally overnight. There are shots of punk avatar Iggy Pop smearing peanut butter on his chest and taunting a crowd. There's performance footage from various seminal bands, from Black Flag and the Ramones to Richard Hell and the Voidoids and X-Ray Spex, all of which gives a good picture of how these bands sounded and what they contributed to the scene.
To be sure, there's no shortage of content. The interview subjects do share their thoughts and memories, and the footage is assembled in a coherent and understandable structure. The problem is that Letts doesn't seem to have anything new to say about the whole experience. The interviewees share the same stories and thoughts they've shared in other places -- how the music scene in the '70s was bloated and distant, how they knew little about music or the industry when they started, how punk changed the world for the better, and so on. As an interviewer, Letts is either unable or unwilling to extract anything new from these people, so their stories at this point come off as fairly prepackaged sound bites. Similarly, he doesn't uncover any lost gems of archival footage -- these are the same exact shots you've seen and heard a million times. He also doesn't use them in any particularly inventive or unique fashion. Someone mentions American punk, so here's a shot of the Ramones. Someone mentions women in punk, so here's a shot of the Slits. It's all well and good that Letts has done a competent job of assembling the documentary, but if he's not going to add anything to the story that hasn't already been told, then why did he bother?
Which brings up the fundamental question: What exactly is the point of Punk? You might be tempted to argue that Letts the director did Letts the interviewer a disservice by only including the least revealing sound clips and footage. However, when you watch the additional footage and interviews included on the second disc of this set, you'll realize that, if anything, Letts did exactly what he intended. In over two hours of bonus footage, none of the interviewees reveal any more than they do over the course of the main film. In other words, Letts made Punk as little more than an excuse to schmooze with his friends and rehash the same old stories that have been told already. Punk rock, apparently, has become every bit as nostalgic, smug, and self-congratulatory as the supposedly bloated and awful music scene it railed against. There aren't even that many swear words, shocking revelations, or good backbiting potshots here; it's a view of punk so sanitized and whitewashed that it turns the music into exactly what it was supposed to replace. Was punk rock always this conventional and staid, or have years of adulation and self-righteousness simply turned it that way? At this point, judging by just how dully predictable this DVD is, it seems like it would be far more rebellious and original to champion stadium rock rather than the Sex Pistols.
Okay, maybe that's not really true, but it still doesn't absolve Punk of being a tedious, forgettable documentary. It's pleasant enough to watch but you simply won't learn much and remember even less. For such a controversial topic, that's truly unforgivable. You'd do better to spend your time instead reading Jon Savage's England's Dreaming and Clinton Heylin's From the Velvets to the Voidoids, two books that cover the English and American punk scenes in thorough and candid detail. You might also actually start with some actual music by the bands seen here rather than waste time hearing them blather. Unless you're really interested in seeing aging rock stars (yes, rock stars) wallow in self-congratulatory nostalgia, though, you can skip this DVD with no regrets.
The anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer and Dolby Stereo mix are both satisfactory. In addition to the bonus footage, the DVD set comes with some text extras -- mainly bios and family trees -- of mild interest.
Guilty of adding nothing new to the subject.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 104 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Footage
* Text Extras