As a Jewish kid from Roanoke, Virginia, my music influences were around what was played on the radio; what played on music channels VH1, MTV, and BET; or what was played by my family across their eclectic tastes ranging from jazz (classic and contemporary) to Motown to rock n’roll to classical to Broadway showtunes to pop. Defining my own sound came from the movies I’d seen, which opened the doors to bands like Queen, Layo & Bushwacka!, KMFDM, The Smashing Pumpkins, Lauren Christy, Bjork, Veruca Salt, Sister Machine Gun, and The Cult. I knew about bands like The Clash and Sex Pistols, but their music was mostly foreign to me, beyond a general academic perspective. The view of them, and bands like them, would be seen by me as a type of rebellion I could never understand. In college, happenstance would introduce me to punk-loving Ryan Johnson during orientation, a young man whose interests and temperament would seem, initially, as agreeable to me as oil and water. Thanks to a mutual interest in continuing our education in Latin and desire to help produce events on campus, we would spend more time together than we likely imagined on our first meeting and it would change my life forever. As discussed in the documentary Punk the Capital: Building a Sound Movement by directors Paul Bishow and James June Schneider (La banda que buscó el sonido debajo), punk music is about pushing back against the status quo, but D.C.-based punk was about using your head, not throwing away your life. Ryan remains one of the smartest, most capable, loving people I know, and, if not for him, the whole of Punk the Capital would’ve been a mind-blowing experience. PTC shows itself to be a tribute to the scene that once was and as a doorway for those who don’t know to better understand what punk is and should be.
If you’re any kind of audiophile, you’re likely familiar with the punk scenes of L.A. and NYC and, of course, London. But what you, or even the general public, may not know is how influential the D.C. punk scene was on music history. As a film fan, my first experience with Henry Rollins was likely 1995’s futuristic Johnny Mnemonic, but, by this point in his career, most knew Rollins as the frontman of bands like State of Alert (commonly known as SOA) and Black Flag, two bands who debuted out of the D.C. scene. Despite his stature across media, Rollins is not the focal point of PTC and the doc, plus the audience, are better for it. This is, however, a great example of how much we think we know and how fantastic it is to have documentaries arrive which can teach us something new or, at the very least, create documentation for the future. In this regard, PTC receives full marks as it is, top to bottom, a tight capturing of a brief period in time which continues to have far-reaching effects. Bishow and Schneider use a combination of talking head interviews and archived footage from 1976-1983 specifically, that juxtapose now with then, helping to punctuate just how prevalent the D.C. scene was and remains. More than that, PTC is an opportunity to shatter the preconceived notions of punk by offering context to aspects that became directly associated to the scene for good and for bad.
Let’s take a moment and consider what people think of when it comes to punk representation. Every group has an iconography to go along with it, a visual shorthand to communicate “I am one of you” to those who know or “You are not one of me” to everyone else. If you were to picture a punk now, you’d likely imagine color-dyed hair, tattoos, waif appearance, and likely someone stoned or drunk. From the perspectives of Bishow and Schneider, this stereotype is thanks to how popular culture presented the community in the films and television of the eighties. This is, of course, contradictory to the messaging from Minor Threat’s 1984 song “Straight Edge,” which accidently created the hyper-abstinent Straight Edge Movement. Via some wonderfully protected archival footage, we can see performances from the late seventies where members of the The Slickee Boys are in jeans and tees or members of the Bad Brains are in suits. It was more during the nine-month stint of the group The Teen Idles (of which Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat was a member) that the popularized youthful rugged look became more common in D.C.. In an instance of amusing coincidence, PTC credits the prominent D.C. music hall 9:30 Club for the Xes which became a signature for Straight Edge members, though it itself was just a way for the bartenders to know who was under the age for legal drinking. Notables like this, along with a brief explanation for how Straight Edge started as an idea in a song written by MacKaye, grew to be something larger, more significant, and beyond his control. That last bit gets to the heart of the D.C. scene and why it’s known as D.C. Hardcore: the District-Maryland-Virginia area (referred to as the DMV by locals) is made up of primarily government officials and their families. When you’re surrounded by the most powerful people in the country, each one telling you who to be and how to act, the only thing left in your control is how you respond. Punk is all about rebellion and, for D.C. Hardcore, PTC presents the scene as the only reaction possible to the increasing conservative moment that shifted much of the Capital area under the Reagan Administration (1980-1984).
Where the documentary may lose people is that a lot of this will be hard to grasp if you don’t already have a foundation of knowledge (thanks Ryan!). You get names and faces, past and present, that whizz by, connections are established and then moved on from, radio stations and labels are mentioned. A whole history is presented in a scant 88-minutes. If the whole of PTC had been treated like a traditional doc and less like the songs these bands sing, the material, and the audience along with it, would be allowed to breath and process. Though as the documentary goes on, it does get easier to see how the earlier presented threads connect to the whole at the end; however, some extra time to recognize just what Bishow and Schneider were saying about D.C. and punk as a whole would result in the content having far greater impact for newbies. I spent just over three years in the DMV, so between that and what I’ve gleaned from Ryan, PTC increased my already limited knowledge while expounding on the things I knew. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the majority of the documentary utilizes a visual style akin to a family tree, instigated by one of the subjects reading from a magazine. This helps create a sense of logic amid overwhelming information. This is a strength for any documentary on any subject no matter where the audience’s education level resides, but there’s definitely a sense in watching PTC that the more you know going in, the greater you’ll appreciate it. Put another way, the documentary uncovers that D.C., more than any other punk scene, archived a wealth of information (flyers, tapes, video, etc.) and, in this way, PTC is like the ultimate archival measure for D.C. Hardcore which fans can return to as a keepsake like flipping through scrapbooks.
If there’s one thing that co-directors Bishow and Schneider seem to want audiences to take away from Punk the Capital: Building a Sound Movement, it’s that the reputation of punk is different from what it actually is. It’s not about creating chaos, but reacting to it, being resolute to it, and effecting change. Being a punk isn’t about violence, but revolution through ideas. At the heart of the D.C. scene are artists, philosophers, and historians, people who have observed the world around them, found it lacking, and responded in the only way they knew how. What is a revolution if not a changing of an idea? In the case of the D.C. Hardcore, they just try to do it in songs that last maybe 0:45 seconds. Economical, sure. Loud, absolutely. Always ready to fight the system with the power of just their amps, at a moment’s notice.
In select theaters and virtual cinemas May 14th, 2021.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD for Record Store Day June 8th, 2021.
For more information, head to the official Punk The Capital website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.