Judge Adam Arseneau wants to be anarchy.
Hey ho, let's go.
Oh, to be young in New York City in the late Seventies and early Eighties, where a blend of counterculture, rebellion, music, drug excess, poetry, and performance art acted as cultural fusion reactor, spitting out what we know as punk rock, forever shaping the volume at which we listen to our rock 'n' roll. House of the Rising Punk takes us on a brief exploration of this period, but its made-for German television roots and lack of scope prevent the documentary from being anything but a smear on the walls of CBGB.
Facts of the Case
Exploding from the bowels of New York City, punk rock would eventually take the music world by storm, but it would take almost two decades before its influences were felt. Before the mainstream got wind, punk was nothing but a few poor, drug-addled and beatnik teens buying cheap instruments and playing cacophonic performances at a lousy biker bar in the Bowery. Early pioneers like Patti Smith, The Voidoids, Television, The Ramones, Suicide, Wayne County, and Blondie pushed the envelope of musical expectations, making it louder, angrier, and more percussive than mainstream music, as much emotion as composition.
A made-for German television documentary, House of the Rising Punk travels to New York and gets down and dirty with notable faces in the early punk movement in New York City—Patti Smith, Richard Hell (Richard Hell & The Voidoids), Lenny Kaye (Patti Smith Group), Tom Verlaine (Television), and punk writer Legs McNeil. Some other faces pop up briefly for small cameo interviews, like Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth), Jim Jarmusch, and Dee Dee Ramone (The Ramones), but the bulk of the interview material comes from the aforementioned four faces.
The biggest hindrance to House of the Rising Punk is that this is nothing new; other documentaries have covered the subject in much more scope and breath than this film, which is crippled by its short running time. It covers all the right bases, but never really gets deep enough into its subject, only interviewing a half-dozen or so people in the course of the feature. It lacks the scope to truly tackle the movement in the way it deserves to be tackled. We spend plenty of time talking to Richard Hell and about Television and the Voidoids and such—and important bands they were—but other bands like The Talking Heads or Suicide get about five seconds on screen. This is hardly a capital sin. The documentary merely focuses on the people who agreed to be interviewed, nothing more or less. It just makes for a narrow examination.
Where the film does well is the important delineation between what was going on in the Bowery in New York (punk) versus what emerged out of Britain shortly thereafter—bands like the Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned, Siouxsie & the Banshees, and X-Ray Specs (also punk, but different). As one bitter interviewee mentions during House of the Rising Punk, Americans can't get into their own music until the Brits amalgamate it and sell it back. After the infamous Sex Pistols tour of North America in 1978, where punk rock became a cultural movement, a fashion sense, and a musical genre all in one foul swoop, House of the Rising Punk ends, abruptly, with a palatable sense of bitterness. All the faces interviewed here (with the possible exception of Patti Smith) peaked early in the movement, and stood on the sidelines watching others reap the financial benefits of their pioneering. It's true what they say: first is the worst.
Other than the short presentation and the relatively shallow examination, there's little to criticize about House of the Rising Punk. It's a German television documentary, with mediocre production values, but considering the subject matter, who cares? You can't criticize a film about punk rock for being DIY. It's a shame the feature isn't longer—it makes it a hard justification for purchase, even for fans of the music. There's just not a lot of meat here.
As for technical presentation, forget it! Ten years old, made for German television, comprised of archival 8mm black-and-white footage, etc. But hey, it's punk rock, baby. It looks average, all things considered; a clean, overly soft presentation that looks like it was scooped right off Beta archive tapes and dumped to DVD. "Dumped" is the key word here—it's a bare-bones presentation, with no frills, no optional subtitles, and no audio choices beyond simple stereo. Heck, some of the interviews even have burned-on German subtitles. I guess nobody bothered to remove them. Beyond the feature, there are no extras or subtitles or frills to be had.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There's nothing wrong with House of the Rising Punk, but likewise nothing to make it worthwhile. For fans of the music and scene, there's probably footage here you haven't seen before, but for the curious or uninitiated into CBGB-style shenanigans, there are better features available for rental or purchase on DVD.
A thoroughly average and short documentary on the early days of New York music and punk rock, House of the Rising Punk covers most of the bases in a scant 60 minutes, but offers up little incentive to view it in favor of other, more robust examinations into the chaotic music scene.
Off the top of my head, I can think of at least three documentaries that cover the subject better. Heck, even the punk episode of The History of Rock 'n Roll is more verbose.
If somebody gives you a copy, go for it. Otherwise, it's strictly a German thing.
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