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Movie Review: Punking Out

Exterior of CBGB with documentary film strips

I first saw and reviewed Punking Out, directed by Ric Shore, Maggi Carson and Juliusz Kossakowski, back at the 2001 New York Underground Film Festival during a marathon night of film viewing, which included four features and a couple of shorts. You can follow that link and read what I wrote, but I’ll reprint it here since it’s short and sweet:

[A] punk rock documentary short from 1978 called PUNKING OUT, covering specifically the hoopla surrounding legendary performance space CBGBs. Including classic live footage of Richard Hell, The Dead Boys & The Ramones, the most engaging aspect of PUNKING are interviews with music fans outside CBGBs. High on the excitement of seeing their favorite punk bands playing live, and possibly high on other substances, the fans’ barely coherent ruminations on their passion are hysterical. People caught in the heat of the moment and asked the right questions are necessary fodder for a great doc.

As you can see, I loved the film then so I was thrilled to see that it’s been released recently on DVD in a version newly restored by the Guggenheim Film Preservation Fund. This is too great of a film to have languished in obscurity. While a good retrospective documentary, like Kill Your Idols or The Filth and the Fury, can offer a nice flavor about a particular period of music history or a specific band by including live concert appearances, it also only allows the audience to understand the music from an intellectual perspective through cautioned reflection by the participants. In that regard, no other documentary has perfectly captured the energy and power of a musical explosion with an “You Are There” immediacy like Punking Out has.

One major mistake that most music documentaries make is that they’re almost always just about the band, leaving out one of the most vital components about rock ‘n’ roll: The effect it has on everyday fans. This is especially tragic for docs about punk rock where much of the punk philosophy is about breaking down the barrier between band and audience.

Punk rock is as much about the people playing the music as it is about those listening to it and where both sides of the stage can easily switch back and forth. For example, the young Dead Boys groupie Lydia Lunch interviewed in Punking Out about fucking all the band members and throwing her used tampons on stage eventually went on to be an early part of the short-lived No Wave movement with her band Teenage Jesus & The Jerks. Also interviewed in the film is Helen Wheels, who wrote lyrics for the Blue Oyster Cult and performed in her own eponymously named punk band.

While interviewing rock/punk fans in various states of intoxication is documentary filmmaking gold (just ask Heavy Metal Parking Lot‘s Jeff Krulik), Punking Out also makes the brilliant move not to take the bands out of their environment for sit-down, hyper-intellectualized interviews. Instead, it grabs the performers backstage either before or after their sets while they’re still pumped up about performing, giving a real sense of urgency and fun to their answers to the interviewer’s questions. The real heart of the film is Dee Dee Ramone who is not only the most brutally honest, but gives the film its most memorable lines, such as: “The amps we have now they … they … they work!” And: “What do you want me to say? That I want all kids to go drink ammonia or something? No, I don’t want that.”

Of course, in addition to the fantastic interviews, there are some phenomenal live performances from the Ramones doing “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue” and the classic “Blitzkrieg Bop;” Dead Boys covering the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the U.K.” and Richard Hell‘s anthemic “Blank Generation.”

To close on a sad note, the punk rock generation is truly dead. Just 30 years after the events of Punking Out, not only has been the music been totally co-opted and sanitized for the masses, but Joey, Dee Dee and Johnny Ramone have all passed away within the past five years; Helen Wheels died in 2000; the Dead Boys’ frontman Stiv Bators died in 1990 after being hit by a car. And, perhaps most sad of all, the infamous CBGB’s will close its doors for good on September 30, 2006 after being forced out by the Bowery Residents’ Committee, which will turn the place into a Gap or some other nefarious chain store. CBGB’s owner Hilly Kristal, who also makes an appearance in Punking Out, plans on relocating sometime in Las Vegas in the future.

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