The interesting aspect of Punk's Not Dead is that the film manages to ask, somewhat answer and also straddle itself within both worlds on the central question of the movie?
Can you be punk in the 21st century?
This movie opens with a 20 minute history of punk in the late 1970s up to the mid-1980s. The ground covered here features talk of bands like Black Flag, The Bad Brains, Circle Jerks and others. Yet, unlike American Hardcore, it doesn't presuppose that the whole thing ended there. As someone who came of age in the Orange County Hardcore scene of the early to mid-1990s, I certainly felt like I was involved in something special although it didn't have nearly the influence that say those aforementioned early 1980s bands have had. And how could it? The road had been paved by those bands and I was merely benefiting from the infrastructure that had been laid out before me. However, I do think that myself, and the people who came later, contributed to that infrastructure much like some of the bands in the film are contributing today.
After showing us punk in the early 1980s, we move to the late 80s/Early 1990s and it is here that we see bands like The Offspring, Pennywise, NOFX, etc. which ushered in a whole new wave of punk. At that time, it was apparent that Pennywise was the biggest of those bands, below them were NOFX and, ironically, The Offspring were seen (at least amongst my friends) as something of a joke. I remember going to a show at the Live Oak Inn in Pomona that a friend had set up. The bill was (from the bottom up) Downer, Blackspot, Triggerman and The Offspring. There were probably 20 people at the show the whole night and since I left as The Offspring were going on, I think there were maybe half that when they played. Then 1994 came around...
This was the year that, depending on your point of view, the whole underground movement got better as the "punk" message was taken to the masses, or things got disastrously worse as bands like The Offspring and Green Day got huge in an event precipitated by the meteoric rise of Nirvana two years earlier. In my opinion, that's when a lot of the fun went out of the independent music scene. All the bands started looking the same (truthfully, they had always looked the same), it was no longer solely about putting out music and communicating with other people, it was now about, "What kind of deal can my band get?" Bands who had put out records, never gotten any money, and toured as much as they could no longer wanted to do that. Can you blame them? No. That doesn't mean that it makes things any easier to take. More labels started popping up which meant more competition which meant bands had options. Suddenly, it became a lot easier to look like a punk rocker as your clothes and your hair could all be bought at the mall. In Punk's Not Dead, Mike Ness talks about how the kids of the parents who used to pick on him now have children who are into his music and the punk look, however now it's acceptable because punk is "cute."
It is here that the film really starts to form the crux of it's question. What is selling out? Is not getting paid to do what you love so you can not be called a sell out, selling out? Is working at a job you absolutely hate just because of some mythical punk ideal selling out? Do we forget that The Sex Pistols who, rightly or wrongly are sort of credited with starting punk were always on major labels? Is a group of like minded people who are thinking, acting and dressing the same punk rock? Is it punk to not take chances when you could better your life for yourself and your family? Is it punk rock to date rape someone like Jack Grisham of TSOL talks about in the American Hardcore documentary? Are Pennywise, who have always been on the indy-label Epitaph punk rock because they do well on the road and all have houses? Is Epitaph punk? Ian MacKaye says it in the trailer of the movie and it's true, "Punk Rock is undefinable." I've always thought punk rock was an attitude. A way of acting. It had to do with how you treated people and thought about the world. Some people say Christian bands aren't punk. Isn't that the same thing as Christians saying disparaging things about punk rockers? Are the guys in The International Noise Conspiracy really getting their anti-capitalist message out using a corporate vehicle? If they were really doing something dangerous would a corporate entity even be dealing with them?
Aside from focusing too much on this or that band, or giving us cartoons that seemed to undercut the power of what the film was trying to say, overall Punk's Not Dead is a solidly put together film. It doesn't seem to answer the question of what punk rock is, rather it mainly shows that punk has always dealt this sensitive issue. It has always straddled the line between what is and isn't punk. For example, when Black Flag were playing their man vs. note style of songs, you have bands like The Ramones that are as accessible as they come. However, I don't think anybody would argue about the impact and the necessity in punk of a band like The Ramones. In the 1990s you had Green Day and The Offspring juxtaposed with Nirvana, Pennywise (who have always been melodic), Rancid, Insted and all the other punk/hardcore bands of that time. Why is any one more valid when it seems like their intentions for doing their music is all the same?
Today, the scene is bigger and I am sadly not a part of it. However, like Ian talks about (yup, there I go referencing him again) in the film, what I have taken from the scene, and what most of my memories entail are the friendships I forged and the talks that I had with those people. The ability, like Jack Grisham touches on, to talk with the bands and hang out with the people who are creating the soundtrack to your life. How accessible it is to do a band, to get shows, to play and to get your record out (forgetting the fact that distribution is key and that the DIY pool is more crowded today than ever), and what it's like touring and making friends all over the world.
Punk's Not Dead covers all of this in its tightly sprawling fashion. Is it better than American Hardcore? I really can't tell you that but why does one have to be better? I will say that it's great that both films exist and depending on your tastes you will certainly like one more than the other. In Punk's Not Dead, I loved seeing shots of the Showcase Theater as well as people I have met through this scene over the years. At the same time, I also threw up my arms when I finally, after all these years, got to see some footage of Sham 69 in action.