Punk rock has been a part of cinema ever since the music blasted out of New York, Los Angeles, and London in the mid to late ’70s. In film and on TV, portrayals of punk are often misguided or straight laughable (Hello Quincy! Hi C.H.I.P.S! Hey, CBGB movie!) But sometimes they get it kinda sorta right. Here now, our list of 10 punk movies we can live with. (Note: not included here are punk documentaries, only feature films.)
10. Pump Up the Volume (1990)
This films follows the story of protagonist Mark Hunter, played by a young Christian Slater. Hunter is a high school student in Phoenix, Arizona, who starts up his own pirate FM radio station a decade before the internet took over when underground radio stations meant a lot to younger people on the fringe of society. He leads two lives in the film: one is the shy, unspoken loner, and the other is the iconoclastic, angry, free-thinking DJ known as “Happy Harry On.”. After stirring things up at the school, with a suicide heard live on air, and revealing the dirty politics on the school campus involving grades and SAT scores, Hunter also pushes the boundaries with prank calls, simulated sounds of masturbation, vulgar jokes, rants about society, and, most importantly, music.
Hunter refused to play the New Kids on the Block, Luther Vandross, or Vanilla Ice, what was popular on the radio at the time. Instead he blasted listeners’ speakers with artists like the Jesus and Mary Chain, the Beastie Boys, Soundgarden, Primal Scream, Ice-T, Rollins Band, Bad Brains, and the Pixies, among many others. Hunter shows the influence of Rodney Bingenheimer, Lenny Bruce, and Howard Stern all in one. Eventually the FCC gets involved, to stop Hunter’s illegal radio show.
9. Control (2007)
This is a biopic about the life of the late Ian Curtis from the iconic yet short-lived U.K. band Joy Division. Married at a young age to his girlfriend Debbie, Curtis becomes a reclusive, depression-prone poet. In 1975, he is influenced directly by a live performance by the Sex Pistols to join a band put together by his friends, as the lead singer.
The film is a very sentimental tale of the manic ups and tragic downs of this charismatic, enigmatic, and suffering soul. Antics from Joy Division’s early days are portrayed, including all the melodramatic infidelities, dysfunctional relationships, and instances of health problems and substance abuse. The film is based on the book Touching from a Distance by Deborah Curtis, and is named after the Joy Division song “She’s Lost Control.”
In real life, as in the film, Curtis suffers from debilitating seizures, and is diagnosed with epilepsy, which leads to his eventual drug abuse (spoiler alert!) and suicide by hanging himself in his parents’ house, in May, 1980, just days before Joy Division was about to embark on their first North American tour.
8. SLC Punk (1998)
This film is a tale of two friends, ostensibly the only two punk rockers in ultraconservative Salt Lake City in 1985. “Stevo” and “Heroin Bob” struggle to find themselves and constantly explain their identities to family, friends, and society at large, who take their ripped clothes, Mohawks, tattoos, and colored hair as signs of mental illness.
7. Sid and Nancy(1986)
A very thin Gary Oldman stars as Sid Vicious, the heroin addicted, unpredictable bass player for the Sex Pistols, in this exploration of his toxic, passionate, and violent relationship with Nancy Spungen. The film opens with Vicious being taken into police custody in New York City in 1978, where Spungen was allegedly stabbed by Vicious, while both were high on heroin in a room at the infamous Hotel Chelsea.
The details of the fights, shooting heroin, and other turmoil between Nancy and Sid, as well as the other members of the Sex Pistols, are detailed in the film and are vivid, even if exaggerated or dramatized. Courtney Love has a cameo as Gretchen, one of the couple’s junkie friends.
See also: 10 Things the CBGB Movie Got Wrong
6. Rock n Roll High School (1979)
Part cheesy teenage coming-of-age comedy, part punk rock history, this musical punk rock comedy gives younger people who weren’t around to experience it a taste of the Ramones mania of the early ’80s. This is a classic tale of youth rebellion and the potential passion that all teens inherently have for rock ‘n’ roll music.
Directed by Penelope Spheeris, who also directed the Decline of Western Civilization series, this film is a fictional portrayal of life in the early ’80s in a suburban L.A. area where runaway punks are living in an abandoned building off the 605 freeways.
As wild rabid dogs kill a toddler, angry citizens come to the area to shoot the dogs, leading to confrontations with the punks. Stealing food, alcohol, and anything else they can get their hands on, these young punks do anything they can to survive. The film explores the drug use, squalid living conditions, and broken families of these kids, who all live in the “TR House” and treat each other like family.
Among the madness, violence, crime, and aggression, the film contains several live musical performances by hometown OG punk bands DI, TSOL, and the Vandals. The movie is a tragic, angst-ridden portrait of the not so glamorous lifestyle of these young punks.
4.Repo Man (1984)
This movie is a cult classic, starring a young Emilio Estevez as an L.A. punk rocker who is unhappy with his job as a grocery store clerk and ends up landing a gig as a repo man, which involves driving fast, partying, sleeping with tons of women, and living in the fast lane.
With one repo assignment, however, the movie turns into a bizarre, twisted sci-fi action thriller, centering on a mysterious radioactive weapon that might be used for nefarious reasons as it is raced in the back trunk of a car throughout downtown L.A. and eventually the Southern California desert.
3.Summer of Sam (1999)
Written and produced by Spike Lee, this is a fictionalized tale of the real life Son of Sam Killer David Berkowitz, who terrified residents of New York City’s Bronx in the summer months of 1977. The victims were men and woman shot to death at close range, many in parked cars. The brutal, horrific killings caused fear, panic, anger, and paranoia among residents, and this film captures the essence of this vibe on film beautifully.
The film stars John Leguizamo, Mira Sorvino, and Jennifer Esposito, along with Adrian Brody as one of the central characters: a punk rocker who is thought to be a Son of Sam suspect because of his punk fashion, which includes a Mohawk, dyed hair, chains, and leather.
2.The Runaways (2010)
Another biographical drama, this one is about the origins and formation of the L.A. all-girl rock band The Runaways in 1975. The movie depicts the band’s early days and rapid rise.
1.What We Do Is Secret (2007)
This movie is an accurate portrayal of the explosive L.A. punk band known as the Germs, and a look at the life and death of the band’s volatile yet poetic lead singer, Darby Crash.
Known as one of the most dangerous, hated, and unpredictable bands on the L.A. punk scene from the beginning in the late ’70s, the Germs brought violence, aggression, broken glass, blood, and fist fights to each show they performed, and soon the band was notorious for starting riots, eventually getting banned form most clubs and venues throughout L.A. The movie is a definite punk rock history lesson, with scenes depicting the Damned playing at the Whisky and many live specially recreated performances at the Masque in Hollywood, and for the film The Decline of Western Civilization.
The band’s singer was viewed as a more nihilistic, sociopathic version of Jim Morrison, and would regularly perform after shooting up crystal meth, heroin, ketamine, or any other drugs he could find. The band, and other punks form the scene, lived off of cigarettes, malt liquor, and chili dogs from a popular punk rock eatery/ hangout in L.A. known as Oki Dogs.
The Germs also included Lorna Doom, Pat Smear, and Don Bolles, who created the magic and aura that was the spirit of the punk movement, before they knew it was a movement. But unfortunately, Darby Crash had other plans in mind, and in 1980, on the same day that John Lennon was assassinated, Crash was found dead, of a self inflicted heroin overdose in Hollywood. It is rumored that before he collapsed from the fatal hit, he wrote “Here Lies Darby Crash” on an adjacent table. Actor Shane West, who portrayed the late Darby Crash, was so convincing that since he has toured and played several shows with the surviving members of the Germs.