The film that seemed to have the most promise turned out to be the most frustrating and the least substantial of the three. Blank Generation, directed by Ivan Kral and Amos Poe, comes on like a concert film, but fizzles out like a first year film studentís final project. Shot entirely in 8 millimeter, the film documents the CBGBís club scene circa 1974-1976. Capturing the smoky grunge of a roach-infested club, Kral and Poe showcase thirteen New York underground groups in segments ranging from two to six minutes each. What generates most of the interest for the film is that some of these bands have grown to legendary influential status (Patti Smith Group, Television, The New York Dolls) while others catapulted to international stardom (Talking Heads, Blondie, The Ramones).
Blank Generation starts out promisingly enough, albeit somewhat amateurishly. Cardboard title credits cut into shadowy images of Patti Smith ascending to the stage and talking animatedly to an audience. Meanwhile, the Patti Smith Groupís rendition of the classic rock staple "Gloria" plays over the soundtrack. This is followed by more cuts of Patti Smith animatedly performing, wildly racing across the stage in whirling dervish transcendence, while, in a terrible audio edit, the soundtrack abruptly jumps into a later portion of the song. A sinking feeling creeps up on the viewer as you slowly realize that this isnít just an opening montage, but the poor technique of the filmmakers. As the film progresses into Televisionís segment, it becomes obvious that the performances on the screen and the performances on the audio track donít sync up. It is never clear whether the audio and the visuals come from the same source and are just badly synched or whether they are from two different sources and badly synched. Whatever the origin, the two never come together harmoniously throughout the sixty minute film.
Thatís a shame since thereís some rare video treasures in the film footage. A nascent three-piece lineup of the Talking Heads looks practically collegiate in the days before adding second guitarist/keyboardist Jerry Harrison and before they had perfected their art rock presentation. Legendary transvestite performer Wayne County, decked out in an outrageously large Dolly Parton-style wig and fish-net stockings, camps it up before a shocked and amused audience who, in a previous segment, looked practically comatose while watching Tuff Darts perform. The aforementioned footage of Patti Smith wrestling with God onstage, while brilliant, leaves the viewer longing for a more substantial and cohesive sampling of her bandís talents.
The film succeeds when the footage shifts away from the live performances. The Blondie segment is charming. The band goes roof hopping over New York apartment buildings. While shooting promotional film shots, their faces look tired and puffy, a foreboding of the demands of their impending fame. The Marbles, acting out a humorous mock guitar battle, project a genuine Beatle-esque whimsy. Towards the end of the film, the camera pans across the bar at CBGBís. The viewer can spot Patti Smith, Lenny Kaye, David Byrne, Tina Weymouth, Dee Dee and Joey Ramone, Tom Verlaine, and Debbie Harry. The last time they were all in the same room was probably when this particular footage was shot. Here they are laughing, drinking, brooding, hamming it up, shouting across the bar at each other, and performing in a way that makes it clear that, for a while, CBGBís was their spiritual and artistic home. Itís the one moment that crystallizes how New York and CBGBís in the Ď70s was a cultural hotbed.
Itís a shame that Blank Generation fails so miserably at communicating the power and impact these bands had, and comes off more like your punk rock grandpaís home movies - interesting in a vague, historical way but ultimately leaving you feeling like you really had to be there.
Kral had his first taste of potential rock and roll stardom in his late teens when his group Sazeís single, "Pierot," went top 10 in "Melodie," a Czechoslovakian magazine reminiscent of Hit Parader. Unfortunately he found this out while away at college in New York, and after Soviet tanks had rolled into Prague in 1968. Barred from returning because of his fatherís outspoken critique of the Soviets at a United Nations meeting, Kral remained in New York drifting from job to job and band to band. He had a short stint working at Apple Recordsí New York office, and as a guitarist in Blondie before landing a by-now legendary audition with the Patti Smith Group. Their method of auditioning guitarists was to play "Gloria" for as long as possible to see who dropped out first. Ultimately the auditioning guitarist conceded, completely puzzled by what the band was trying to accomplish. Ivan Kral never dropped out, intuitively grasping that the band was trying to break through the barriers of the pop song format into the realm of rock and roll as an artistic choice and as a method of transcendence.
The spiritual heart of the documentary (and it seems of Kralís career) was his heady years with the Patti Smith Group. Female fronted rock groups were an oddity in the mid-70ís, but the band was set to break all the rules. Freely bending gender and genres, the Patti Smith Group consciously embraced the poetic and improvisational rock tradition of which they saw themselves as a natural extension. The fragments of performance footage show a band earnestly trying to break on through to the other side, and after getting there, continuing to break through to the next level. Smith whirls frantically, completely possessed by her artistic daemon, incanting poetry off the top of her head while the band whips itself and her into deeper states of frenzy. Their performances electrify, illuminating the possibilities of rock and roll as rituals of transcendence for both audience and performer.
As a man without a country, Kral became one of the central unifying symbols of the band; literally an outcast, an artist existing on the fringes of society, forever exiled from his true home. This gave instant credibility to the bandís artistic conceit of existing on the borders of society - forever observing, reporting, and calling no land home.
Each member of the Patti Smith Group functioned in a unique way in relation to Patti Smith. "She used to tell me I was her Keith Richards." Kral reveals at one point in the documentary, "I even dyed my hair black," to further solidify the archetype for her. But much like the relationship with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, when it came to choosing directions for the band, the two were sometimes at odds. Kral saw nothing wrong with being a commercial success, freely admitting his longing to achieve rock and roll superstardom. Smith, while romanticizing it briefly, ultimately rejected the prospect. Never wanting to reach a point where she was just a jukebox traveling from city to city, Patti Smith chose to retire suddenly after a successful tour through Italy, thus effectively ending the band.
Left stranded, Kral accepted a call from Iggy Pop, another legendary punk rock pioneer, to join up with his band. Iggy shared similar qualities with Smith, but was another type of performer altogether in the Ď70ís and early Ď80ís. Constantly high, self destructive and riveting to watch, Pop truly lived on the fringes as a wild man of rock and roll. He strutted onstage barely clothed, throwing himself into the audience with abandon one minute, the next hurling a guitar high overhead as he charged around the stage like a trapped panther. "Iggy would never perform the same song the same way each night," Kral said. "Sometimes I just stopped playing and started to laugh." Ultimately, it was a musical relationship that couldnít last. Kral felt he was a babysitter, constantly curbing Popís extreme behavior. He even stopped Iggy from jumping out of an upper story window in a New York hotel the night before he decided to quit the band.
The documentary becomes less interesting while covering Kralís later career. Doing stints in increasingly irrelevant bands (John Waite Band, Eastern Bloc), he retired briefly from the music scene in the late Ď80ís before staging a return to form in the Ď90ís with his band, Native. Towards the end of the program he talks of his hopes that someday Patti Smith would decide to return to performing and reform the band. After the movieís release, Patti Smith did come out of retirement, performing poetry readings and then, after the death of her husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith, returning to rock and roll. Overall Dancing Barefoot gives a decent glimpse into the life of one of the underrated figures of New Yorkís punk rock scene. It clearly outlines the objectives of one of the most influential bands on the scene while detailing the heartbreak of the music business and the frustrations of keeping a band together within the madness of popular acclaim.
During the 1970ís, popular music took a turn for the worse. A wasteland of soft rock and overproduced, bloated art rock dominated the airwaves. U.S. teenagers were left longing for something that reflected their aggression and anger at the perceived betrayal by mainstream performers of the values of rock and roll. Enter the Sex Pistols - a snarling, bratty unit who could barely play their instruments, but shook up the British continent with their blatant disregard and disrespect for contemporary rock and for British social conventions. The group lit a fire under the youth in England, launching a musical revolution whose influence has become so prevalent and accepted that a Mohawk haircut hardly turns heads anymore.
Like most trend breakers, the original wave of Punk Rockers sacrificed financial security in order to hold steadfast to their artistic vision, only to see popular, tamed versions of their style (Green Day and Offspring are the bands most cited) succeed wildly in the musical marketplace. Rage lets some of the original artists air their views and tell their side of a tale that has been steamrolled and assimilated into mass acceptance.
Rage fails at delivering a visual portrait of the movement. The performance footage is brief. A few seconds of the Screamers (one of L.A.ís first punk bands), the Germs, and the Dead Kennedys tantalizes, but provides little sense of the energetic interplay between performers and audience. The documentary mainly consists of sequenced interviews connected by stylized graphics. The use of these graphics illustrates more clearly than anything else in the film the influence of the punk rock approach on the graphic arts. The jittery lettering and cut and paste collages which were initially used in designing flyers for shows now permeate everything from soda pop commercials to title credits on mainstream films like Se7en and the remake of The House on Haunted Hill.
To hear veterans like Jack Grisham and the road weary Duane Peters (U.S. Bombs) tell it, the punk rock spirit is a license to flaunt all the worst qualities of humanity, and still get paid for it. Gitane Demone adds to that, stating that they were pushing the boundaries of accepted behavior. However she does counter that by talking about the importance of her spiritual path. Later, Demone and Peters seem to reduce "true punk rock" down to a strictly codified musical idiom. This stance is maddening since punk rock, like the garage rock revolution in the Ď60ís, was initially a celebration of individual, unorthodox approaches to music. The almost heavy metal thunder of Black Flag, the jazz punk excursions of the Minutemen, and the country/rockabilly punk of X all illustrated that the punk approach is as idiosyncratic as their differing names. Itís the spirit of the means of production that matters. Granted, Demoneís comments largely referred to her reaction to her son playing her the music of "corporate shills," Green Day, but they certainly edge towards cliquishness and dogma.
While informative, entertaining and infuriating, Rage is far from a definitive look back at punk rockís golden years. The documentary does demand a familiarity with the subject matter.
The uninitiated, who want insight into the punk culture while gaining more of a visual sense of its wild and varied impact, would do well to check out these noteworthy films; The Decline of Western Civilization Part One, The Filth And The Fury, History Of Rock ĎníRoll: Punk and X: The Unheard Music before digging into Blank Generation, Dancing Barefoot, and Rage: 20 Years of Punk Rock, West Coast Style.
Blank Generation, Dancing Barefoot, Rage: 20 Years of Punk Rock are now available on DVD from Music Video Distributors. Blank Generation and Dancing Barefoot and packaged together on one DVD. Rage: 20 Years of Punk Rock includes a bonus slide show and several bonus audio tracks, including "Spit Up the Rage" by Jack Grisham, "Solitary Wars" by Gitane Demone, and "Too Drunk to Fu*k" by the Dead Kennedys. Suggested retail price: $24.95 each. For more information, check out Music Video Distributors Web site.