Amos Poe and Ivan Krol made the first punk rock film, a hallucinatory 16mm love letter to early 1970s proto punk with a scrambled soundtrack that captures the candid moments of a movement lost forever to time. The only way you can go to a show at Max’s Kansas City is to pop the worn-out videotape from Odd Obsessions in your VCR and sink yourself into the flickering, black and white dream world.
David Byrne warbles through cracked front teeth. Television makes you want to do drugs, or possibly feel like you’re already on them. Maybe you’re just hallucinating Joey Ramone’s nightmarish crocodile jaw unhinging and slavering, his off-kilter teeth forming around out-of-sync words.
The camera roams around CBGB’s stage, taking in leather jacket after leather jacket, bleached denim crotches, and tapping sneakers. Tommy Ramone is still hidden behind the drums, wearing a shirt with the iron on decal AMERICAN…..American what? I’m going to go ahead and fill in LEGEND. RIP, Tommy Ramone.
Genres warp and blur together. The same faces show up over and over: Richard Hell in Television, Richard Hell in The Heartbreakers, Richard Hell and the Voidoids. Former New York Doll Johnny Thunders shows up in The Heartbreakers. A nihilistic screed against New York with the lyric “I’m sick of the girls not showing their wares” gets a sly response in the next scene from Jayne County, the lead singer of Wayne County. Camping and strutting in high heels, fishnets, and a towering wig, she stutters “You look like a girl.”
1970s New York was a dark, dystopian wasteland of crime and drugs and a perfect incubator for a new artistic movement. Musicians starred in films, filmmakers started bands, and everyone did heroin. If you want to learn more about the film scene in this era, including quite a bit about the making of Blank Generation, check out the recent documentary Blank City on Netflix.
For the deep dish on the music, read Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil & Gillian McCain and look at Catherine Ceresole’s photography while listening to the Ribbon Around a Bomb podcast, which focuses on female-fronted no wave.
Can’t get enough Richard Hell? He also starred in another film named Blank Generation, a bizarre 1980 drama from horror-schlock director Ulli Lommel. It’s pretty hard to get your hands on, but you can read a comic about it.
Director Danny Garcia recently completed a documentary on the New York Dolls and Heartbreakers guitar player Johnny Thunders called Looking for Johnny. You can watch the whole thing on YouTube.