Turn It Around: The Story of East Bay Punk


The scene is a monster.

(2017) Musical Documentary (Abramorama) Billy Joe Armstrong, Iggy Pop (narrator), Jello Biafra, Laurence Livermore, Tim Armstrong, Kathleen Hanna, Brett Gurewitz, Ian Mackaye, East Bay Ray, Fat Mike, Ben Weasel, Kirk Hammett, Lars Fredricksen, Mike Dirnt, Sergei Loobkoff, Kevin Seconds, Penelope Houston, Tre Cool, Duff McKagan, Kamala Parks, Honey, Miranda July, Ginger Coyote. Directed by Corbett Redford

 

The nature of music is that every so often there comes a confluence, a mixture of talent, opportunity and inspiration that coalesces in a single location. The rise of Motown in the 60s, the British invasion, the Seattle grunge scene, the jangle pop scene in Athens, GA, the Madchester era and the Minneapolis of Prince, the Replacements and Soul Asylum are all examples of this.

There are other scenes that are evergreens; they are generally large cities that have a steady influx of talent. Los Angeles, New York City, London and San Francisco are all consistently churning out great artists and inventing (or reinventing) new sounds. Sometimes these large city scenes are like black holes, drawing in everything in a 50 mile or more radius.

The East Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area has always existed on the edge of San Francisco’s orbit. While Oakland has always had a thriving rap scene, the suburbs of Alameda, Contra Costa and Solano counties have largely been garage band territories that have from time to time produced some fine bands.

During the 80s as the punk phenomenon was in full swing in San Francisco with bands like the Avengers, the Dead Kennedys and Flipper making important music something happened; the scene began to fade as hardcore skinhead bands began to suffuse the scene in violence. The editor of seminal punk ‘zine Maximumrocknroll Tim Yohannon wanted a venue that punk rockers of all ages could watch their favorite bands in safety – but also gave the bands the freedom to be themselves. He found such a space in Berkeley in a converted warehouse at 924 Gilman Street.

The 924 Gilman scene became a thriving punk scene that supported a wide variety of bands. The most famous bands to come out of the Gilman scene were Rancid and even bigger was Green Day whose success became a sticking point for many of those who felt that signing with a major label and making any sort of money was in effect selling out.

Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong approached Corbett Redford who went to high school with him looking for archival footage from the halcyon days of Gilman for a film that Armstrong wanted to make documenting  the scene. Not only did Redford have the footage that Billie Joe was looking for, he volunteered to direct the thing as well.

The result is one of the most exhaustively thorough music documentaries I’ve ever seen. Essentially chronicling the story of San Francisco Bay Area punk from its early beginnings to the break out success of Green Day in 1994, the movie contains footage of the bands who played the Gilman regularly and interviews with literally hundreds of people associated with the scene, from the musicians who played there to the volunteers who worked there to the writers who covered the scene to the artists who grew out of the scene. The film clocks in at about 2 ½ hours so it’s not something you sit in without some sort of commitment.

The length of the movie may be daunting to some; it’s hard to sit through 155 minutes of talking heads and snippets of songs but the frenetic editing pace makes it palatable. In fact, I was left wondering if with additional footage this couldn’t have been a mini-series rather than a movie although I have to admit a movie was an easier sell to something like Netflix than a miniseries based on a specific scene. Still, one has to admire the passion of all those involved from the filmmakers to the interviewees who made this happen.

The footage is in many cases extremely rare and unavailable anywhere else. For me, there was a nostalgic appeal in seeing bands like Operation Ivy, Neurosis and Kamala and the Karnivores, bands that figured in my Bay Area rock critic days and who now existed for me only as worn-out cassette tapes and memories – until now.

Redford utilizes animation sequences masterminded by Tim Armstrong of Rancid fame that recollects the artwork of the great punk zines. The animations are some of the best and most entertaining segments in the film and are worth seeing on their own.

One can’t understate the importance of Gilman as the ultimate expression of the DIY philosophy and of taking the punk ethic to the next logical evolutionary step. Not everything that came out of Gilman was amazing and life-changing but there was always an energy that radiated from the bands that played there regularly that were not present anywhere before or since. The Gilman is still there; some of the people who have been there since the beginning are too but for the most part, it’s a new generation trying not necessarily to live up to the accomplishments of those who came before them but to blaze their own trail while holding true to the tenets that have guided the Gilman collective since the beginning.

This isn’t a movie for everybody; people who find the music discordant and irritating doubtless will not find much to like here but it isn’t just the music that is important but the society that sprang from it. Love Green Day or label them sell-outs; they were an important part of the Gilman Street Experiment (almost said Experience there) and because of their success or maybe in spite of it, they are able to wield the clout to get a movie like this made. Punk scholars will appreciate this most of all.

REASONS TO GO: The concert footage is indispensable. The animated sequences are zine-like and cool. The Gilman scene gets the due it richly deserves.
REASONS TO STAY: Too much information coming at you in a documentary that’s a good half hour too long. There is an overabundance of talking heads here.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Redford and the members of Green Day all went to Pinole Valley High School although two years apart.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Decline and Fall of Western Civilization
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Monster Project

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This Is England


Stephen Graham needs a big, fat hug.

Stephen Graham needs a big, fat hug.

(IFC) Thomas Turgoose, Stephen Graham, Jo Hartley, Andrew Shim, Vicky McClure, Joe Gilgun, Rosamund Hanson, Andrew Ellis, Perry Benson. Directed by Shane Meadow

In July 1983, England stands at a crossroads. Embroiled in a war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands, suffering massive unemployment, the young people of the UK are looking for answers that are not forthcoming from their government or traditional institutions.

Shaun (Turgoose) is an unhappy 12-year-old boy whose father recently died in the war. When a classmate cracks a cruel joke, Shaun gets into a fight with him, forcing his mum (Hartley) to the school to bail him out. On his way home, he meets a group of skinheads led by Woody (Gilgun), who sympathizes with his plight. In turn, Shaun finds a group of misfits much like himself, angry and frustrated at the way things are.

Shaun finds acceptance within this group and at first things go well. He cuts his hair short and dresses like his new friends – a sort of rite of passage for him. He even develops a romantic relationship with Smell (Hanson), a New Wave girl who hangs with the group. Things change, however, when Combo (Graham) returns to the group after a stint in jail. He is far more politically oriented, blaming many of his country’s troubles on the immigrants from Pakistan, Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, particularly those with darker skins. His beliefs split the group in two. Although Woody wants Shaun in his group, Shaun feels more kinship with Combo.

Through Combo’s now-racist skinhead faction, Shaun gets to express the anger and frustration he feels, and finds scapegoats for his fury. While things never get violent, there’s always violence lurking just below the surface. When Combo severely beats up Milky (Shim), the only black member of Woody’s skinhead group, Shaun’s eyes get opened to the consequences of hatred.

Some of this material is semi-autobiographical. Writer/director Meadow (Shane/Shaun, get it?) grew up in a similar environment and many of the incidents were anecdotal to his own childhood. Given the economic climate here in America, it is a little easier for us to relate to what was going on in England 25 years ago then it probably was three years ago when this movie was first released in the UK.

Graham is incendiary as Combo. He is not really a bad guy, but he has allowed hate to take him over, and that hatred drives him. When it is finally unleashed on Milky, he feels genuine remorse afterwards, horrified and sickened that he was so brutal on a friend. Turgoose does a capable job as Shaun. The movie really turns on having a decent actor in the role, and Turgoose manages to make Shaun a believable character without being overly annoying.

The soundtrack is authentic classic ska, rocksteady and reggae, the kinds of things skinheads actually listened to back in the day. As the group moves into more aggressive behaviors, so the music gets more aggressive. It’s hard to be hateful and violent with a Bob Marley soundtrack, after all.

This is a movie about the evolution of a gang from a benign, harmless group of misfits who hang out because they don’t want to fit in into a violent, racist group looking to enforce their dominance through violence and intimidation. In some ways, it reminded me of the soccer hooligan movie Green Street Hooligans although that movie was less concerned with the evolution of violence more so than the effect of violence on its members. In many ways, This Is England is more horrifying though less visceral; even though there are fewer acts of violence depicted in the movie than in Green Street Hooligans, the effect of watching a fairly normal 12-year-old boy metamorphose into a hateful, prejudiced kid is all the more chilling because it’s the kind of thing that happens every day.

WHY RENT THIS: Graham and Turgoose are both special in their roles. The evolution of the skinheads from benign social outlet into hate-mongering racists is chilling to watch.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This is very UK-centric and those who are not interested in the world outside their own may have little fondness for this.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is blue throughout, and there are some racially motivated hate crimes depicted. There is also some brief sexuality between a young kid and a somewhat older girl.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Turgoose had never acted professionally before and demand five pounds to audition; he had been banned from his school play for disruptive behavior. The film is dedicated to his mother, who died shortly before filming.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Sleepwalking