According to Judge Paul Corupe, the infamous disdain of punk rock stars extends to basic acting principles. (Except for Henry Rollins, of course.)
A new movie…about a new generation.
After directing the landmark 1980s L.A. punk rock documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, Penelope Spheeris hooked up with B-movie maverick Roger Corman to make one of the seminal disaffected youth films of the 1980s: the tragic street kid saga Suburbia.
Facts of the Case
Unable to cope with his alcoholic mother, Evan (Bill Coyne, Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones) runs away to the mean streets of L.A. With nowhere to go and nowhere to stay, he ends up wandering into a local punk rock show where he meets scenester Jack Diddley (Chris Pedersen, Platoon). Diddley introduces him to "The Rejected" ("T.R."), a close-knit group of homeless punkers holed up in a grimy crash pad. Evan identifies with his new friends immediately, learning their tales of abuse, neglect, and societal rage. Before long he is listening to obnoxiously loud music, stealing food, and engaging in petty vandalism with the others. But life with T.R. isn't all fun and games. They still have much to fear from the local yokels who regard them as a dangerous threat to their suburban utopia.
This surprising, hard-hitting flick probably isn't the best punk rock-based movie of the 1980s. But it's much better than it should be, painting a compelling youth-in-turmoil tale set against the nihilistic world Spheeris already explored in The Decline of Western Civilization. Roger Corman's publicity machine at New World marketed the film as a straight-up exploitation flick. It's really an exuberant and sympathetic look at the troubled kids who made up 1980s L.A. punk rock scene, and how they have banded together to form the first "post-nuclear" families.
As Spheeris' dramatic debut, Suburbia is far from perfect, with a very low-budget feel, amateurish camerawork, and roughly-hewn characters. Beneath the unpolished exterior is an affecting tale that nicely captures a spirit of DIY camaraderie in the face of what seems to be North America's darkest hour. Of course, the film's fin-de-siecle atmosphere can only be laughed at today—especially one line that predicts that everyone will be chemically deformed mutants by the year 2000. But damned if it doesn't occasionally feel authentic, like T.R. are the last hopeless generation of a society teetering on the edge of oblivion. Like that year's more satirical punk film Repo Man, it's an engaging look at the way troubled and directionless youth are treated by a society that has all but disowned them. It pulls its punches at Reagan-era values and self-absorbed baby boomers that left their kids to fend for themselves. Though Spheeris' script occasionally resorts to heavy handed metaphors, including a pack of feral dogs roaming the neighborhood, the film manages to unravel a sordid tale of drugs, suicide, and violence with genuine humor. It remains consistently entertaining despite its warts-and-all technical shortcomings.
Suburbia's most obvious limitation has to be the primitive acting. Spheeris decided to buck the trend and cast real west coast punk rockers to populate her film. While this adds realism and improvisational looseness to the scenes of destruction, general loafing, and mosh pit barbarism, most of the kids seem to have difficulty speaking any scripted lines to advance the plot. As a result, many important scenes in the film come off stilted. Still, sharp-eyed viewers will have fun spotting future musicians Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Wade Walston of the U.S. Bombs, both relative unknowns at the time, who have substantial roles here as T.R. members. There are also performances throughout the film by the likes of vintage L.A. punk bands The Vandals, DI and TSOL. Constant references to other bands in graffiti and photocopied cut 'n' paste posters hung on walls and hydro poles guarantee that this film will be a fascinating nostalgia trip for some viewers.
Too bad this new DVD of Suburbia didn't get a bit of spit 'n' polish, as it's really no improvement over the previous version released by Corman's New Concorde . It's hard to tell whether this is an open matte transfer or simply a pan-and-scan butchery, as some scenes seem framed properly while others do not. In either case, it looks exactly like a VHS release. The picture is occasionally slightly jittery, full of artifacts and poor contrast levels. Likewise, the sound is a razor-thin mono track that lacks the proper presence needed to properly hear the musical performances and the occasional line of dialogue. At least there are a few extras. Penelope Spheeris has gone on to a long and semi-illustrious career that has encompassed everything from Wayne's World to The Beverly Hillbillies; I was a little surprised to find her on hand for an entertaining commentary track in which she talks good-naturedly about the successes and faults of her sophomore effort. The disc is rounded out by a few related Corman trailers and some text biographies.
Suburbia is a classic cult film of the 1980s, but this lackluster edition by Buerna Vista makes it difficult to recommend to those wanting to check out the film for the first time. On the other hand, longtime fans of the film and the L.A. punk movement who neglected to pick up the first edition might want to give this one a chance, especially since it has a commentary track with Spheeris. Just don't expect too much.
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Studio: Buena Vista
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