D. O. A.: A Right of Passage
directed by Lech Kowalski
starring Sex Pistols
In 1978 Punk was “A Thing” but its longevity remained unclear. This non-official doc follows the Sex Pistols around London and on to their ill-fated American tour shot in glorious VHS. Punk was a firehose of anger ruled by short songs and unbridled frustration about the moribund British economy. This amazing feat came from an unemployable bunch of drug addicts who could barely play their instruments; but they had publicity genius Malcolm McLaren plugging them. He knew the critical issue of publicity: Notoriety outweighs talent 100 to 1. Lo-fi and low budget, punk got amazing traction and the movement is still here today, now tamed and exploited by modern record labels. And as for Sid, Neil Young summed it up best: It’s better to burn out than fade away.
Down in the special feature “Dead On Arrival: The Punk Documentary That Never Was” someone moans “Why didn’t Warner make their own film and do it right?” But they didn’t; and that gives this admittedly rough doc its soul. Punk hadn’t caught the attention of the record industry, and they had no idea what to do with a troupe of ill behaved, marginal musicians who were changing the world. While the pistols are the center of attention, we get early performances by Billy Idol, Iggy Pop, the Clash, X-ray Specs, and a flock of other early burrs under the saddle of the industry. They changed the world, or at least the world of pop music.
Highlights? They’re everywhere. Iggy Pop’s backing vocalist pulls an Oscar Meyer wiener out of his pants. Nancy tries to keep Sid awake for an interview as he nods out. The fans in Tulsa, Oklahoma are ready to kill after being ripped off for their ticket money. The tour bus doesn’t look street legal. None of the songs are synced up. The film drips with scratches and artifacts, the women are repulsive, the men are rude, and the whole film is a wonderful slap in the face of slick pop culture. People spit. They share drug kits. Their pants are torn and the whole shebang look like homeless people parodying rock and roll. The promoter from Tulsa is a total redneck; he tried to cancel the show before the Pistols play, but folds after a bluff about suing him seems real enough. My favorite moment come from a wonderfully uptight British boffin explaining how the punks weren’t important because they didn’t play to his rules and properly complain to the Queen about the economy.
We end on a sad note with the Nancy and Sid interviewed in a dumpy hotel in New York. (The Chelsea, as I recall.) She’s bitchy and he’s nodding out and that’s as punk as you can get. Helpful subtitles let you know what the lyrics say, and there’s not narration other than quotes from people on screen. You can make your own conclusions, but the result is now fixed: starting a punk band carries the same risk as starting a hipster coffee house: You may make it, or you may fail, but no one questions WHY you’re doing it. If you were a gleam in daddy’s eye back in 1978, here’s what you missed, and what he almost experienced. Go make your own revolution, this one is his.