It’s been 30 years since Alex Cox’s brutal biopic Sid and Nancy first hit theaters. In 1986, when the film was released, punk was still a major part of American subculture. It was a living, breathing thing that hadn’t yet sold its soul for more radio play or to sell concert tickets. Before pop-punk destroyed what little street cred the genre had left, to be punk was to be a part of something bigger. It was an attitude, a lifestyle, a way of looking at the world.
Punk rock began as a response to the popular culture of the mid-1970s. Just as the psychedelic rock of the ’60s created a roaring counter-culture, punk rock was its own anti-establishment movement. Punk embraced a DIY ethic, producing their own recordings and distributing them at shows or through other channels. Punk was never about making money or writing chart-topping hits; it was about spreading a political message. As such, there were limited punk record companies or labels. The lack of corporate control made punk music easier for the lower-and-middle class fans to relate to.
Cox’s portrayal of Sex Pistols guitarist Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen is considered one of the greatest punk movies of all time. To celebrate its 30th anniversary, here are 10 films that anyone with even a vague interest in punk rock should check out.
The Decline of Western Civilization (1981)
The Decline of Western Civilization is a primer on punk rock. The documentary, filmed between 1979 and 1980, details the rise of the punk rock movement in suburbia. Produced and directed by Wayne’s World director Penelope Spheeris, the film features underground punk bands that have since become legends. Black Flag, the Germs, X, Circle Jerks, and more are shown in early concert footage. The documentary frightened many critics and the police chief of Los Angeles, who allegedly asked the director to never screen it in his city again.
The Decline of Western Civilization featured the first mosh pit ever shown on camera. It documented the violence at many punk shows as well as the dangerous lifestyle many punks led. The film’s poster featured the lead singer of Germs lying on stage with his eyes closed. He died of an intentional heroin overdose before the film was released. If that’s not an apt metaphor for punk ideals, I don’t know what is.
Repo Man (1984)
Repo Man was Sid and Nancy director Alex Cox’s first major motion picture. Starring Emilio Estevez and Harry Dean Stanton, Repo Man captures a punk aesthetic while also featuring some amazing punk music on its soundtrack. The film follows young LA punk Otto Maddox (Estevez) during a horrible day that changes his whole life. He gets fired from his crummy supermarket job and catches his girlfriend cheating on him with his best friend. Fed up with the system, he willingly becomes a repo man under the tutelage of repossession agent, Bud (Stanton). Based on some stories Cox picked up when he was a repo man himself, the film is a mad rush of adrenaline and laughs. Estevez is great as a young punk, and the film was a breath of fresh air.
Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a 98% approval rating, and the film is considered one of the best of 1984. It features a soundtrack with songs by Iggy Pop, Black Flag, Suicidal Tendencies, and more.
SLC Punk! (1998)
It’s never been easy to be a punk, but it had to be especially hard for people in especially repressed places. There are few places as repressed and backward in the United States than Salt Lake City, Utah. Home to a whole lotta Mormons and some of the strictest liquor laws in the country, SLC is a tough place to be a punk.
SLC Punk! follows a handful of young punks in the titular city during the late ’90s. Protagonist Stevo grows frustrated with his lifestyle after graduating college and eventually figures out that it’s nearly impossible to be a responsible adult and a punk. After a series of unfortunate events with drugs and death, Stevo becomes totally disenchanted with the punk rock ethos. SLC Punk! is hilarious and heartbreaking, and a truly honest look at being a punk.
The Filth and the Fury (2000)
While some criticized Sid and Nancy of being overly critical and melodramatic, The Filth and the Fury is a more factual, documentary-style look at UK punk band The Sex Pistols. The film is the second made by director Julien Temple about the band. His documentary charts the rise, decline, and eventual fall of the Sex Pistols and puts the band into a historical context. Many of the surviving members of the band felt this was a way to tell their side of the story. Temple used interviews with the surviving members, footage from the era, and outtakes from his previous film to make the documentary.
The title of the film has a nuanced history: it was inspired by The Daily Mail‘s headline after a Sex Pistols interview, which in turn was taken from a Faulkner novel (The Sound and the Fury), and before that, Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
The Return of the Living Dead (1985)
The Return of the Living Dead is a weird pseudo-sequel to George Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead. After that film’s success, Romero, and fellow screenwriter John Russo had a disagreement with how to follow it. Romero went on to make Dawn of the Dead, while Russo wrote a novel, Return of the Living Dead. He later helped adapt the novel into the screenplay for the 1985 film, which is markedly different from Romero’s sequels.
Return features boatloads of nudity as well as a punk aesthetic and a more tongue-in-cheek silliness than the very serious Romero films. Many of the characters in Return are punkers who were out partying in a cemetery when a toxic gas brings the corpses back to life. They are forced to fight for their lives alongside their friend Freddy, who works in the mortuary.
The film features characters named Spider, Trash, Scuz, Suicide, Casey, and Chuck. It also features topless women hanging out in cemeteries rocking mohawks, which helps place it firmly on this list.
American Hardcore (2006)
American Hardcore is a lot like The Decline of Western Civilization in that it documents the rise of the hardcore/punk movement in American suburbia. Based on the book American Hardcore: A Tribal History by Steven Blush, the film was released in 2006 on a limited basis. It features early pioneers of the hardcore punk music scene, including Bad Brains, Black Flag, Minor Threat, Minutemen, and others.
The biggest difference between Decline and American Hardcore is that the latter is a retrospective, looking back on the rise of the scene well after it happened. Decline was filmed during the rise of punk, and as such, there aren’t as many interviews or as much polish as American Hardcore.
American Hardcore features interviews with more than 30 current and former hardcore punk band members. Some of the names are pretty high-profile, including Black Flag singer Henry Rollins and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bassist Flea. This is probably the most accessible documentary on hardcore punk, without losing the spirit of the movement.
We Are the Best! (2013)
So far, the list has featured mostly pasty American and British white boys. With the exception of the ultra-right skinhead punks, most punk rockers are pretty tolerant of other cultures and genders. Punk is about the common person standing up to the establishment. Even if the punkers are 13-year-old girls. Especially if the punkers are 13-year-old girls. We are the Best! (or its original title: Vi är bäst!) is a Swedish-Danish drama adapted from the graphic novel Never Goodnight.
We are the Best! is a coming-of-age story with a punk attitude. A group of middle-school girls decide to form their own punk band even though everyone around them says punk is dead. They don’t have any instruments either, but that’s not about to stop these determined kids in Stockholm. We are the Best! is cute and really captures the indomitable spirit of youth.
The Punk Singer (2013)
Speaking of punk ladies, The Punk Singer is a great documentary about Kathleen Hanna, one of the founders of the riot grrrl movement. Riot grrrl punk focused on feminism and promoting strong women through music. The Punk Singer traces Hanna’s life from her troubled childhood and her start in performance poetry and riot grrrl zines. She’s the one who wrote “Kurt Cobain smells like Teen Spirit” on the Nirvana singer’s apartment wall, and was one of the first ladies of punk. Hanna is alt-music royalty, both as the lead singer of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre and as the wife of Beastie Boys member Adam Horovitz.
Sadly, Hanna was diagnosed with Lyme disease in 2010 and has struggled to combat its effects. While making the film, Hanna limited the number of men that were interviewed. “I want women to be the experts. I don’t want these male experts to come in to make it legitimate,” she explained in an interview.
Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam (2009)
Sometimes, fiction inspires reality. A 2003 novel by Michael Muhammad Knight called The Taqwacores featured punk bands uniting Muslim people from various countries and religious sects. His idea of punk Islam unites them all. Inspired by the novel, punk bands began to crop up in the US and Canada composed of Pakistani immigrants. Knight’s imagined riot grrrls in burqas became a real thing in the form of Secret Trial Five, fronted by a Pakistani lead singer. Decades after punk helped give a voice to the white working class, it gave immigrants who have to fight horrific stereotypes a new way to hit back. A feature film based on Knight’s book was also made, but the documentary provides more insight into this unique and challenging sub-culture.
The Runaways (2010)
The other films on this list are all a little grungy, mostly low-budget, and therefore adhering to the DIY ethos punk proscribes. The Runaways is glitzy and glossy, featuring A-list actresses formerly attached to cheesy teen films. In that way, The Runaways is the most un-punk punk movie on this list. Thing is, Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart are amazing as Cherie Curie and Joan Jett, respectively. They growl, strut, and sing their way through the film with filth and fury.
Jett was a consultant on set, and her touch is apparent in the way the girls are portrayed on screen. The Runaways were one of the first female rock bands to really kick ass and take names, and they did it when they were all minors. Things went south pretty quick, as is the way of rock ‘n’ roll, but The Runaways paved the way for the much stronger riot grrrl movement and other XX punksters.
The biggest selling point of The Runaways is the film’s performance sequences. The first time Fanning performs the hit “Cherry Bomb“, it’s absolutely electric. They bring a humanity to a group that has otherwise only been seen from afar.