Punk rock music is a menace to society. Born out of a hatred of the status quo, the genre is synonymous with abrasive carnage, anti-authoritarian messages, and flipping the bird to the world at large. However, throughout the years, punk has manifested in various forms, and the genre that was once rooted in rebellion and DIY aesthetics is now equally as renowned for its mainstream success and ability to pack stadiums.
With more than 40 years worth of history to mine from, the journey of punk is fascinating, to say the least. Whether it’s hearing stories about bands who did their best to change the world only to implode thanks to behind-the-scenes mayhem or polarizing discourse as to what punk rock should be, there’s a lot to talk about. Naturally, several documentaries have dug into these stories to contextualize the history of punk rock and the key players involved. This list highlights eight of the very best of them.
8-9. The Clash: Westway to the World (2003) and The Rise and Fall of The Clash (2012)
Don Letts’ 2003 documentary The Clash: Westway to the World is regarded by many as the essential career overview of the titular punk icons. It’s an excellent documentary, for sure, and worth seeing for exclusive interviews with band members and some pals. However, the fact that the film overlooks the post-Mick Jones era of the band means that it’s no longer the most definitive piece on their career.
Neither is Danny Garcia’s The Rise and Fall of the Clash, which mainly focuses on their fall from grace. But that part of their history tends to be overlooked in the grand scheme of things, and it’s a tale that should be known. This doc chronicles the events which led to the band’s split. And while it’s not the most positive portrait of the group, the film at least gets down to exploring a fascinating time through an unbiased lens.
To an extent, Westway to the World benefits from the inclusion of the band’s original members. But the film is selective in its storytelling as a result. The Rise and Fall of the Clash isn’t as well-made or celebratory as Letts’ effort, but it also doesn’t pull any punches. Watch both docs for the full account of The Clash’s journey.
7. Hated: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies (1993)
GG Allin is one of the most morbidly fascinating performers in the history of music. His troubled personal life and confrontational onstage antics were so infamous that his legacy will forever be synonymous with tragedy and destruction rather than the music he created. As such, he carved somewhat of a legendary niche in punk history when he was alive.
From drug addiction to self-harm to eating his own feces, Allin’s story is truly one of a kind. It’s also very disturbing. Todd Phillips’ documentary chronicles the final chapter of the notorious rocker’s life as he gets hammered, fights, strips, and defecates without a second thought. The film doesn’t hold back when it comes to showing the ugliness of the singer’s life and at times it’s truly revolting. At the same time, the doc is also very compelling as Allin unapologetically lived his life on his own misguided terms, which is somewhat admirable.
Whether you love him or loathe Allin afterward, you’ll probably agree that he was certainly a character who made for an intriguing subject to base a documentary around. This would be Allin’s last contribution to the world, though, as he died from a heroin overdose the day after the film’s premiere in 1993.
6. American Hardcore (2006)
Hardcore punk was arguably at its angriest and most influential from the late ’70s to the mid-’80s. In the United States, that era saw the emergence of several pioneering acts who were pissed off at authority, society, and musical trends that didn’t align with their own tastes. Their response was to turn up the volume, play faster, and make their anger heard and felt. Paul Rachman’s American Hardcore revisits this golden age and provides a heartfelt trip down memory lane.
First and foremost, American Hardcore is a time capsule doc that provides some excellent insights into the spirit of the movement. The film assays the motivating factors behind the fury and how that rage fostered a movement comprised of rebellious outcasts out to have fun. While the doc doesn’t examine the genre’s broader impact on music and culture, it’s still a great overview of a scene during a creatively fruitful period.
The range of guests assembled by Rachman, including members of Minor Threat, Bad Brains, and many other key players, is also impressive. Their stories recalling the good old days makes for some educational and sentimental viewing. All in all, this is a perfect introductory doc for those looking to learn their early hardcore punk history.
5. The Decline of Western Civilization (1981)
Legendary music critic Lester Bangs once described the Stooges’ 1970 album Fun House as comparable to “the decline of Western civilization.” This attitude was held by many in regards to the punk scene as a whole, though. Therefore, it is highly likely that the title of this Penelope Spheeris documentary is a reference to Bangs’ review of an album that is heralded as a revolutionary moment in the birth of punk rock.
The Decline of Western Civilization explores the Los Angeles punk rock scene from 1979 to 1980. At the time, punks were regarded by many as criminals, dope fiends, and nihilists. A danger and a detriment to society, even. If you enjoyed this music and lifestyle, then you were judged. But Spheeris’ film taps into the heart of this subculture and portrays its members in an honest, more nuanced light. And the film was so effective when premiered that a high-ranking official in the LAPD called for it never to be shown in the city again.
This documentary was the first in a trilogy. The follow-up, The Decline of Western Civilization: The Heavy Metal Years investigates the LA heavy metal subculture in the ’80s. Meanwhile, The Decline of Western Civilization III returns to the series’ punk roots to investigate homeless teenagers living in the city during the ’90s.
4. Punk’s Not Dead (2007)
Most of the docs on this list focus on specific eras or artists. Punk’s Not Dead, on the other hand, chronicles the history of punk rock from its inception in the ’70s, and all through its progression to the mid-2000s. Like all genres, punk has evolved throughout the years and branched out into a variety of different styles and subgenres. This doc looks at this evolution and features several name artists trying to define what punk is or should be.
Of course, with the sheer variety of punk out there, defining the genre is a debatable topic. Is the poppy MTV-friendly iteration that found mainstream success in the ’90s and early 2000s any less “punk” than the anti-authoritarian bands whose careers are spent in the trenches sticking it to the system? Here, members of the latter bands give their thoughts on the former and vice versa.
The truth is: different people have their own ideas about punk. The varying perspectives featured in Punk’s Not Dead is what makes the documentary such a fun and compelling watch. By the end, you’ll probably think that there’s plenty of room for everyone to co-exist.
3. End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones (2003)
The Ramones are one of the most influential bands in the history of punk rock. Their impact cannot be understated, but you could argue that they never found the success they deserved during their prime. While they’re a household name among music fans, in general, these days, they never topped the charts or sold a lot of records back in the day. Yet they still spawned a legion of fans and were respected among their peers.
But it wasn’t all fun and games for the band behind the scenes. Like all the best rockers, they went down in flames. End of the Century is the definitive career retrospective of the band. From their humble beginnings admiring the Stooges and playing local clubs, to subsequent years that were beleaguered by in-fighting and drugs, this is an honest, entertaining, and sometimes sad portrait of the Godfathers of Punk.
Interviews with the band members provide a warts-and-all account of their career. Elsewhere, friends and peers like The Clash’s Joe Strummer share their own stories and discuss their brilliance. Sadly, though, End of the Century also marked one of the final times that members Dee Dee, Joey, and Johnny appeared on screen before their unfortunate deaths.
2. Punk: Attitude (2005)
Most documentaries that highlight punk’s origins tend to focus on the mid-’70s, as that’s when the genre really took form. But sometimes these docs forget that punk probably wouldn’t exist without the garage rock from the ’60s and early ’70s that paved the way for bands like The Ramones and other early seminal acts to break through.
Fortunately, Punk: Attitude, which was directed by The Clash’s videographer Don Letts, pays tribute to the proto-punk artists and their influence on contemporary artists. The doc also spends time exploring familiar ground whilst simultaneously looking at bedfellow genres like post-punk and noise rock, which share many sensibilities with traditional punk rock.
That said, the best thing about the doc is how it embraces the notion that punk rock is diverse and covers a wide musical spectrum. Bands like MC5, Sonic Youth, and Fugazi are just as punk as The Damned, Sex Pistols, and The Clash, even though they operate in different stylistic realms. As the title suggests, it’s attitude that defines punk. Not style of rock per se.
1. The Filth and the Fury (2000)
Director Julien Temple’s first documentary about Sex Pistols was 1980’s The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, which mainly focused on the band’s story from the biased viewpoint of their manager, Malcolm McLaren. The film is well worth checking out for an alternative perspective, but The Filth and the Fury is the definitive Pistols career memoir.
The Sex Pistols story is another slice of punk history that’s rooted in misfortune. After finding fame, success, and notoriety in their short-lived tenure as a band, they soon fell apart as a result of tumultuous relationships and drug addiction. Temple’s doc is a revelatory film which chronicles this rise and fall through interviews with surviving band members and archival footage of old news reports and concerts. The film also showcases a more intimate and human side of the band, defying the idea that they were nothing more than drunken, rowdy upstarts.
Additionally, the doc also provides some insight into the British social climate in the ’70s, which saw a rise in youth unemployment and a feeling of alienation throughout the country. This social upheaval birthed British punk and gave a voice to the forgotten population. The Sex Pistols certainly had their dramatic moments, but their hearts were in the right place.