These 10 Movies Remind Us Why We Listened to Punk Rock Back in the Day
A new TV series about the Sex Pistols gets our critics thinking about the 1970s music revolution — and the surprisingly entertaining films it inspired
This month, British director Danny Boyle, 65 — an Oscar winner for Slumdog Millionaire — releases his new FX miniseries Pistol, about the raucous and revolutionary rise of the Sex Pistols in 1970s England. Based on guitarist Steve Jones’ memoir Lonely Boy: Tales From a Sex Pistol, the six-episode series stars a quintet of relative newcomers as band members Jones, now 66 (played by Toby Wallace); Johnny Rotten, now 66 (Anson Boon); Sid Vicious (Louis Partridge); Paul Cook, now 65 (Jacob Slater); and Glen Matlock, now 65 (Christian Lees). Punk history has taken center stage in biopics before, including Sid and Nancy, but the genre and its ethos have touched every corner of cinema — from fun-loving musicals to pulse-quickening horror films, and from gritty dramas to eye-opening documentaries. Here are 10 films that will have you breaking out your favorite tattered concert T-shirt, spiking up your mohawk and queuing up some quick-and-dirty punk rock hits. Your grandkids will never believe that this is part of your past!
Rock ’n’ Roll High School (1979)
The premise: Think of this Roger Corman–produced B-movie musical as punk’s answer to Grease. When the buzzkill principal of Vince Lombardi High School takes concert tickets away from student Riff Randell (P.J. Soles, now 71) and plans a rock-record-burning event, Riff teams up with honorary students, the Ramones, to take back the school. Expect hilarious one-liners (“Do your parents know you’re Ramones?”) and a soundtrack of punk tracks that famed rock critic Robert Christgau described as: “Two excellent new Ramones songs, plus a Ritchie Valens cover shared by the Ramones and the Paley Brothers, plus a live medley of five familiar Ramones songs, plus P.J. Soles singing one of the new ones poorly. Plus high-quality new-wavish stuff of varying relevance, most of it off albums that people who enjoy the samples would probably enjoy owning.”
Listen to: The title track, a Ramones original produced by Phil Spector for the soundtrack.
Watch it: Rock ’n’ Roll High School on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Peacock, Roku Channel, YouTube
The Decline of Western Civilization (1981)
The premise: Eleven years before she helmed Wayne’s World, director Penelope Spheeris, now 76, released this seminal documentary about the Los Angeles punk scene, which she filmed in 1979 and 1980. At a time when the genre was still ignored by the mainstream rock press, Spheeris turned her camera on underground bands including Black Flag, Fear and X. The film marked the start of a trilogy: Part Two (1988) covered the city’s heavy metal scene in the late ’80s, while Part Three (1998) offered a glimpse into the “gutter punk” lifestyle of homeless teenagers in the late ’90s.
Listen to: “I Love Livin’ in the City,” a Fear song about the underbelly of L.A. that starts with the line “My house smells just like the zoo” and gets progressively more graphic.
Watch it: The Decline of Western Civilization on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, YouTube
Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (1982)
The premise: In this cult hit that became an urtext of the feminist riot grrrl movement, Diane Lane (now 57) and Laura Dern (now 55) star as disaffected working-class teens who form a punk band that’s more about sass and sneering than musical talent. Corinne (Lane) manages to finagle the band’s way onto a tour with the aging headliners, the Metal Corpses, and their upstart openers, the British punk band Looters, who are played by an impressive quartet: British actor Ray Winstone (now 65), Paul Simonon (now 66) of the Clash, and Paul Cook and Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols.
Listen to: The Fabulous Stains’ song “The Professionals,” which was penned by Cook and Jones.
Watch it: Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, YouTube
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Valley Girl (1983)
The premise: In this SoCal take on Romeo and Juliet, Deborah Foreman (now 59) stars as the titular popular high-school student from the San Fernando Valley, opposite Nicolas Cage (now 58), in his first major film role, as an angsty punk boy from the wrong side of the tracks — well, more like the wrong side of the Hollywood Hills. Despite Cage’s punk leanings, the film is better remembered for popularizing Valleyspeak lingo like “gag me” and “for sure.”
Listen to: The soundtrack definitely skews new wave, with songs by Modern English, Men at Work, and Sparks, but the Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way” offers a touch of British post-punk.
Watch it: Valley Girl on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, YouTube
The premise: When she wasn’t hard at work on her Decline of Western Civilization trilogy, Penelope Spheeris was directing this acclaimed film about teenage runaways who squat in abandoned tract houses off L.A.’s Interstate 605, calling themselves The Rejected. (They brand their arms with “T.R.” as an initiation.) She cast real punk kids in the roles, including future Red Hot Chili Peppers band member Flea (now 59), and the film includes live footage of bands performing, including D.I., T.S.O.L. and the Vandals.
Listen to: “Darker My Love,” which is performed in the film by hardcore band T.S.O.L.
Watch it: Suburbia on Amazon Prime, Apple TV
Sid and Nancy (1986)
The premise: Gary Oldman (now 64) lost 30 pounds by eating only “steamed fish and lots of melon,” so that he could play the role of doomed Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious, who died of a heroin overdose in 1979. This feel-bad romance tracks the downward spiral of his relationship with girlfriend Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb, now 65), who was found dead in New York’s Chelsea Hotel with a stab wound to her abdomen. The film includes appearances by other musicians, including Iggy Pop (now 75), Nico and future Hole singer Courtney Love (now 57). In his four-star rave, Roger Ebert wrote: “Performances like the ones in this film go beyond movie acting and into some kind of evocation of real lives. Vicious is played by Oldman and Spungen is played by Webb, and there isn’t even a brief period at the top of the movie where we have to get used to them. They are these people, driven and relentless.”
Listen to: “Love Kills,” an original song written by Clash front man Joe Strummer for the film’s soundtrack.
Watch it: Sid and Nancy on IndieFlix
SLC Punk! (1998)
The premise: This beloved Sundance Film Festival entry follows two punks living in conservative Salt Lake City in the 1980s — blue-haired Stevo (Matthew Lillard, now 52) and “Heroin” Bob (Michael Goorjian, 51), whose name is ironic. It turns out he’s scared of needles and hates drugs. Stevo may love the punk lifestyle, but he’s hiding a secret: He’s extremely intelligent and earns such excellent grades that he gets accepted to Harvard Law School! The ensemble cast also includes Jason Segel as Stevo’s Notre Dame–bound friend Mike.
Listen to: “Sex and Violence” by Scottish band The Exploited, the song that plays over the opening credits.
Watch it: SLC Punk! on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, HBO Max, YouTube
What We Do Is Secret (2007)
The premise: Early 2000s heartthrob Shane West — of Once and Again and A Walk to Remember fame — plays very against type as Darby Crash, the late lead singer of Los Angeles punk band The Germs. “He looks uncannily like the snaggle-toothed, baby-faced singer,” David Wiegand wrote for San Francisco Gate, “who is as well known today for the irony of his decision to end his life the same day John Lennon was killed as for his explosive flash of a career.” Crash’s orbit included future Foo Fighters guitarist Pat Smear, now 62 (played by Rick Gonzalez), and future Go-Go’s front woman Belinda Carlisle, now 63 (Lauren German), who was hired as the Germs’ drummer before a case of mono kept her from ever actually performing with the band.
Listen to: “Forming,” a Germs song performed by West and his fellow fictional bandmates, including Bijou Phillips as bassist Lorna Doom.
Watch it: What We Do Is Secret on Amazon Prime
We Are the Best! (2013)
The premise: A punk movie has no business being this sweet and charming. This coming-of-age tale follows a pair of misfit teens who start a punk band in 1982 Stockholm — despite being told by everyone that punk is dead. They aren’t able to play instruments either, until they enlist the help of a shy Christian girl from town who knows classical guitar and teaches them how to strum a few chords and harmonize. Writer-director Lukas Moodysson adapted the movie from his wife Coco’s autobiographical graphic novel, Never Goodnight.
Listen to: “Hate the Sport,” which includes the profound lyrics, “Hate the sport / Hate the sport / Hate hate hate hate the sport.” It’s about hating sports.
Watch it: We Are the Best! on Amazon Prime, YouTube
Green Room (2015)
The premise: Be warned: Like the punk scene itself, this film is very much not for the faint of heart. In this brutal indie thriller, members of a D.C. punk band called the Ain’t Rights (played by Anton Yelchin, Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole and Callum Turner) witness a murder at a rural Oregon club where they’ve booked a gig — not realizing that it’s, in fact, a neo-Nazi hangout. The club’s menacing owner Darcy Banker (Patrick Stewart, now 81) traps them in the green room, starting a life-or-death standoff between the forces of punk-rock good and skinhead evil — all set to a hard-rocking soundtrack of punk and metal classics.
Listen to: The appropriately titled 1981 Dead Kennedys song “Nazi Punks F— Off,” which the Ain’t Rights perform to an unenthusiastic audience.
Watch it: Green Room on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, YouTube
Nicholas DeRenzo is a contributing writer who covers entertainment and travel. Previously he was executive editor of United Airlines’ Hemispheres magazine and his work has appeared in the New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure, Sunset and New York magazine.