Director Susan Dynner’s documentary Punk’s Not Dead is an ambitious documentary that seeks out to portray exactly the idea expressed in its title. It looks at what punk was, is and will continue to be – a viable form of expression that has evolved over the years and will continue to do so.
The film doesn’t really try to be a piece on the history of punk music, rather it’s an exploration of what punk means to everyone who’s been involved. And the honesty in this film is refreshing and all-encompassing. If you're looking for a film that simply pays tribute to punk pioneers, you're watching the wrong film.
As she looks at the history of punk through the eyes of its founders, Dynner is simultaneously actively exploring the ideas and ideals behind punk, rather than simply what took place. The politics and cultural opinions toward punk and punks are examined, and pop culture’s ideas of punk are replayed with old clips of Donahue, CHiPs and even the infamous punk episode of Quincy. The Pistols, Ramones, Buzzcocks and Clash show up, as do many of their lesser well-known brethren.
The early days of the DIY movement are explored, when bands couldn’t find places to play or release records. Ample screen time is given to the pioneers behind early DIY labels like Dischord and BYO records, and while they are treated with a certain reverence, there is never an overly pretentious attempt to allow anyone to say what punk isn’t, only what they think it is.
When she reaches the modern era, Dynner examines the way punk has become a commodity. She talks to the people that some punks consider the enemy of the DIY movement (including representatives from Hot Topic and Kevin Lyman of the Warped Tour). The insights expressed are welcome and new for a film like this, but if you're the type to brandish the word "poseur", this is where you'll want to close your eyes, because it's not intended for you.
She also examines what’s truly left in DIY, by going to a punk squat (The Drunk Tank) where house shows are a way of life. At the same time, she’s interviewing bands like Good Charlotte, Sum 41 and The Used, bands that many people refuse to allow to be classified as punk. She also talks to older punk rock poster boys who are often brushed off because they’ve gone big (i.e. Green Day, Social Distortion and The Offspring), and attempts to get to the meat of their take on punk.
As is the case with many of these films, larger amounts of screen time are devoted to certain bands. In American Hardcore, it was a detrimental move, resulting in a lovefest for its featured bands to the extent that other bands were avoided completely. Dynner avoids the lovefest, using her feature time to focus on bands from like the U.K. Subs, Subhumans and Adicts, bands from the old school that never got mass-market appeal, yet continue to tour incessantly, playing for a large, yet underground following.
The film's happy nostalgic moments are many and constantly recurring, often accompanied by animation of the stories the musicians are telling. And although little is mentioned of the classic Exploited song that shares the film’s title, members of that band get some face time, too, along with subtitles that allow the American viewer to wade through their thick accents.
If you’re looking for a film that explains the history of punk, this isn’t it. That’s OK, there are plenty of other films that have done that. Likewise, if you’re looking for old concert footage and lengthy interviews, there are other films that offer that. This film presents its idea as a collage of sound bites and video clips. It’s too fast-paced to get boring, and definitely more of a philosophical film than a historic one.
While the underlying theme of the piece is that punk is not dead, merely evolving, the refreshing message that comes across is that nobody really has the right to say what punk is not. It was an eye-opener for me as well as for many others who’ll see the movie, as it’s a message reaffirmed by many esteemed members of the underground. It may alienate some of the old schoolers who turn out to see it; in their eyes it may give too much attention to "poseurs", but I think the intent was to try and turn some midsets from the old guard around. If the film gets through to a few crusty old schoolers (it did so with me), it's been successful. If it just makes them mad, well, that's pretty much what punk rock is all about, isn't it?