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Punk—A New 4-Part Documentary—Aims to Tell the Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth About Punk Rock

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Whither punk? Forty-some years after punk rock’s rather complicated, still-argued-about birth (if you’re one of those people who like to go on about how punk started with Iggy Pop and the Stooges, or the MC5, we’re beyond the half-century mark), its rise, its fall, its meaning and legacy and influence are still being debated.

Witness the press conference held in Los Angeles to tout the new four-hour Epix documentary series Punk (it premieres tonight)—an event that featured a Last Supper–like assemblage of punk progenitors, including John Lydon (Sex Pistols, Public Image Ltd), Henry Rollins (Black Flag), Marky Ramone (Ramones), Duff McKagan (Guns N’ Roses), Donita Sparks (L7), and John Varvatos, who executive produced Punk with Iggy Pop himself. What began as yet another panel discussion about the meaning of something quickly devolved into a rapid-fire exchange of insults between Lydon and Ramone: “You talk the talk, but you didn’t do the walk,” spat Ramone. “Look at you—you look like a heavy metal fucking reject,” countered Lydon, before the two men had to be physically separated. (For the record: Lydon does have a way of running off at the mouth).

Is the documentary itself worth fighting about? Yes. While there have been some excellent one-off films documenting individual bands and scenes—witness Jim Jarmusch’s Gimme Danger, about the Stooges; Julien Temple’s Sex Pistols documentary, The Filth and the Fury; Penelope Spheeris’s essential The Decline and Fall of Western Civilization—most serious attempts at treating the entire punk oeuvre, from the get-go to the blowback, the die-off, the endless resuscitations, and the what-did-it-all-means, fall seriously short.

I don’t envy any producer trying to wrangle this particular herd of cats—I’m guessing that having Iggy Pop as executive producer helped out immensely—but the results are impressive. While any mainstream attempt at vividly rendering any subculture no doubt results in both hits and misses, Punk is impressive in its breadth, its scope, its seriousness, and its fun, as the artists who made the scene happen sit down for rare and often revealing interviews, sometimes throwing some vinyl of their old records on the turntable for a reappraisal. (The most visceral rush of the series: the quick-cut reactions of one punk legend listening to the work of another—Henry Rollins, for example, lip-synching and throwing his fist down while hearing “Anarchy in the U.K.”)

Something crucial it doesn’t miss: Punk wasn’t one thing, and it didn’t happen in one place, and Punk covers everything from early aggressive music in Detroit in the late ’60s and early ’70s to New York and the CBGB scene in the late ’70s to London around the same time and the D.C. and West Coast hard-core that crept up a few years later, along with later punk incarnations including the so-called Riot Grrrl scene.

One more thing that Punk—unlike so many earlier treatments of punk—gets right: It wasn’t just angry young men making the scene happen, and the documentary features a wealth of evidence, including revealing interviews with Jayne County (rock’s first openly transgender singer, formerly known as Wayne County), Debbie Harry of Blondie, Joan Jett, Exene Cervenka, and Viv Albertine of the Slits.

As for that silly notion of whether or not punk is dead, “Legs” McNeil, cofounder of the magazine, Punk, that gave the movement its name, has this to say: “There will always be some angry kid, in his bedroom, screaming, ‘Fuck you mom!!!!’ That, to me, is as punk as anything.”