Greil Marcus Picks Favorite Punk Film Moments

Liv Lemoyne, Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin in WE ARE THE BEST!
Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Liv Lemoyne, Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin in WE ARE THE BEST! a Magnolia Pictures release.

A smash hit on the festival circuit, “We Are the Best!,” a Swedish movie about teenagers starting a band, has people buzzing about hardcore movies again. Legendary rock critic Greil Marcus picks his favorite moments in punk cinema.

Some of the strongest punk movies have little or nothing to do with music. What’s on the screen is purely attitude ("Repo Man"), a smear of jeopardy and revenge ("Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me") or flat, plain, nervously complete defeat ("Office Space," "Ghost World"). Punk as music, where what’s at stake is the desire of a few people to speak in public and see if they can get anyone to listen to them, is much harder to catch. But there’s a scene in the new "We Are the Best!" that throws the whole story into relief. Two tiny teenage girls in Stockholm are trying to rehearse for the first time. The one behind the drum kit shouts to the one on bass, neither having a clue about what her instrument does, let alone what they’re doing: “Keep going!”

It’s that moment of release, that moment of discovery, of breaking through a wall. And every good punk movie turns on just such a moment. The film may have been made to find that moment. It may be all you take away. As with Joy Division, struggling through "24 Hour Party People" (2002) to find that special, undeniable, unanswerably damned voice that must be heard — and going out with the most uproarious version of “Louie Louie” you’ll ever hear.

"D.O.A."(1980) is a documentary about The Sex Pistols’ 1978 tour of the United States. But what always comes back to me is brief footage of Terry & The Idiots, the worst punk band in London, or anywhere, in a pub, getting beer thrown in their faces, treated like dirt, trying bravely to make noise.

Nirvana is playing in South America in "Nirvana Live! Tonight! Sold Out!!" (1994). Stage guards, sickened by the abject figure before them — by the way Kurt Cobain, acting out a play of defiant weakness, throws everything they ever have believed in back in their faces — beat Cobain to the ground.

In "Hard Core Logo," a 1996 mockumentary, Joe Dick is at the end of a pointless punk-band reunion tour. He banters with the film crew that has been following him around. With an unreadable smile on his face, he holds out a glass, an offscreen hand fills it, he drinks it down, then lifts a gun up from out of the frame and shoots himself in the head. You can play the scene over and over and still never see it coming. It happens so fast — as Constance Rourke once put it, quick as thought. But it doesn’t yield to thought.

Marcus lives in Oakland, California. His books include "Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ’n’ Roll Music" and "Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century." His latest, "The History of Rock ‘n Roll in Ten Songs," is out this September from Yale University Press.