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25 Greatest Punk Rock Movies of All Time

From U.K.-to-L.A. scene rockumentaries to riot-grrl portraits and the Ramones’ fictional alma mater, our favourite portrayals of punk on screen.

From U.K.-to-L.A. scene rockumentaries to riot-grrl portraits and the Ramones' fictional alma mater, our favourite portrayals of punk on screen.

Punk started as a sonic flipped bird to the Rock Inc. industry who many said had become bloated beyond repair — and like its Elvis/Beatles/Stones ancestors, punk’s scenes and subcultures would ended up leaving its mark on the movies. From seminal concert movies to rockumentaries, the underground shock cinema that found fertile ground in its DIY aesthetics to the mainstream movies that smelled an exploitable trend, we’re counting down the 25 best punk-rock films of all time. 1-2-3-4!

By Tim Grierson, Sam Adams, David Fear and Elisabeth Garber-Paul.

25. ‘SLC Punk’ (1998)

Ok, Matthew Lillard’s Stevo isn’t exactly the world’s most convincing punk. But in terms of demonstrating how the lifestyle could save you from dying of boredom as a your square suburbanite? It’s got that in spades. And the movie is certainly saved by its soundtrack — featuring the Exploited, the Adolescents and Minor Threat — as well as by writer-director James Merendino’s bona fides when it came to exploring life as a marginalized rockers in conservative Salt Lake City, where he himself knew grew up. EGP

24. ‘Breaking Glass’ (1980)

Sounding like a songbird and looking like a cross between Siouxsie Sioux and Klaus Nomi, Hazel O’Connor’s angry young musician is destined to be a star — and a martyr in the name of those who give in the corrupting forces of capitalism known as “the music industry.” But Brian Gibson’s rags-to-riches tale offers a nice snapshot of both punk rock as a “fad” to exploit in movies circa the early Eighties and the anything-goes aspect of the music after that initial explosion. And that Tron-flavoured rendition of the song “Eighth Day” is a keeper. DF

23. ‘Times Square’ (1980)

One is a Ramones-loving dead ringer for a young Joan Jett; the other is the daughter of a political hopeful who’s going to turn the “X-rated” Forty Deuce into Disneyland redux. (Editor’s note: Like this could ever happen!) Together, these two disillusioned young women form the Sleez Sisters, a Dead Boys-ish duo who, with the help of DJ Tim Curry, broadcast their anthemic kiss-offs to the rotten core of the Big Apple. Years before he’d turn kids on to the glories of pirate radio with Pump Up the Volume (1990), director Allan Moyle would make a case for punk as vehicle for female empowerment — Trini Alvarado and Robin Johnson’s shock-slur choruses even sound like proto-riot grrrl reclamations. And in a perfect world, this cult flick would have started a huge underground garbage-bag couture trend. DF

22. ‘Valley Girl’ (1983)

Basing a teen film on Romeo and Juliet? It’d had been done. Replacing a Montague and a Capulet with a San Fernando Valley shopping-mall habitue (Deborah Foreman) and a sensitive Hollywood punk (Nicolas Cage)? Now we’re talking. A harmless version of punk subculture hits the multiplex (look, it was way better than that Quincy episode), with director Martha Coolidge putting together a solid soundtrack — even though she had to drop songs from perhaps more authentic acts like the Clash, because they couldn’t secure the rights. EGP

21. ‘We Are the Best!’ (2013)

Punk’s spirit of indiscriminate, what-you-got rebellion has rarely been portrayed as adorably as in Swedish director Lukas Moodysson’s heartfelt, joyous look at three Stockholm preteens in the early 1980s. Mocked by boys who don’t think girls know anything about rock, the female trio (played by newcomers Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin and Liv LeMoyne) grab instruments and make a wondrous clatter out of the things they hate — including, in their boisterous anthem “Hate the Sport,” having to go to PE. An attack on mansplaining and a salute to that eternal need to play loud music to articulate feelings you can’t otherwise express, We Are the Best! is about the euphoric feeling that you and your mates can conquer the world. You just need the right combination of power chords. TG

20. ‘X: The Unheard Music’ (1986)

There were Los Angeles punk bands, and then there was X — a quartet who took elements of the underground scene, old-school rockabilly, and pure aggression to craft a gnarly, snarling soundtrack to living in the underbelly of the beast. W.T. Morgan’s documentary on the pioneering group may not have the contextual scope of, say, The Decline of Western Civilization, but it does make the case for Exene Cervenka, John Doe, Billy Zoom and D.J. Bonebrake being a live force to be reckoned with — watch Exene tear into the final part of “The World’s a Mess, It’s in My Kiss” with a staggering ferocity, and you’ll know that their music was anything but unheard. DF 

19. ‘Dance Craze’ (1981)

The definitive document of England’s 2 Tone movement, this seminal concert-footage movie underlines how the rocksteady ska bands borrowed heavily from the U.K.’s first-wave punk handbook — from female musicians taking the lead (check out the Bodysnatchers and Selecter segments) to channeling a Spirit of ’76 energy in the performances (see Bad Manners frontman Buster Bloodvessel’s manic skinhead act). Just because porkpie hats and suits had replaced bondage pants and leather jackets doesn’t make this classic any less worthy of being on the list — the credits sequence, in which a happy crowd takes over the stage to skank en masse to the Specials’ “Nite Club” is one of the most punk-as-fuck screen moments ever. Rude boy, come again! DF

18. ‘Urgh! A Music War’ (1981)

Without a widespread system of independent distribution, punk bands ended up in some strange company on major-label rosters — particularly in this sprawling performance film masterminded by I.R.S. Records’ Miles Copeland. What are Dead Kennedys and the Au Pairs doing in a concert movie with UB40 and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark? Never mind the incongruity: Here’s Urgh!, a wide-ranging channel-surf through anything that major labels could fit under the umbrella of “New Wave,” ca. 1981. The performances are often stellar, even if they seem to be assembled at random, and often represent the only chance to see some of punk’s more overlooked pioneers (The Cramps!) in their prime. SA

17. ‘1991: The Year That Punk Broke’ (1992)

Poised on the cusp of the alternative rock era, David Markey’s documentary follows Sonic Youth on a European festival tour, with guest appearances by Dinosaur Jr., Babes in Toyland, the Ramones and Iggy Pop. But by the time the movie was released, the focus had shifted to their opening band: an up-and-coming Seattle trio called Nirvana. As the title, punning on music-industry slang, suggests, alt-rock’s breakthrough was also the beginning of its breakdown: A running gag has band members re-enacting scenes from Madonna’s Truth or Dare, mocking pop celebrity even as they come to terms with their own. Ending a week before the release of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” it’s a perfect time capsule of the calm before the storm. SA

16. ‘American Hardcore’ (2006)

Based on Steve Blush’s 2001 book of the same name, this doc traces the history of the breakneck, post-1980 punk scene that began in California and eventually took over the whole country. Elder statesmen like Greg Ginn, Keith Morris and Ian MacKaye weigh in, while director Paul Rachman tracks down choice, grainy show footage (ever wanted see Bad Brains’ first Philadelphia show, circa 1981?).  And the oral-history approach avoids a those-were-the-days nostalgia in favor of calling out inter-scene bullshit — like Minor Threat’s Ian MacKaye discussing the misinterpretation of his song “Guilty of Being White” and Black Flag bassist Kira Roessler realizing her bandmates might not respect women very much after seeing the decidedly misogynistic cover of Slip it In. EGP

15. ‘My Degeneration’ (1990)

Underground filmmaker/art terrorist Jon Moritsugu reimagines a rise-and-fall showbiz narrative as a scuzzy, 16mm skullfuck opus set in the lo-fi punk world, as an all-female trio named Bunny-Love makes it big, become pawns of the Beef Industry and one of its members falls in love with a rotting pig’s head. Bands like Vomit Launch and Bongwater grace the soundtrack, while the movie’s unholy trinity blast noise as well as slogans and sellout angst (Nirvana’s Nevermind chart dominance was still a year away). Many movies have been made about punk rock. This movie feels like punk rock: dirty, angry, righteous, handmade, exhilarating. DF

14. ‘The Punk Singer’ (2013)

Is punk a young person’s game? This documentary portrait of Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna sets out to prove otherwise, as well as reminding folks how her riot grrrl quartet took a sledgehammer to the patriarchy. Hanna’s later bands Le Tigre and the Julie Ruin took a more cerebral, dance-driven approach, as she settled into marriage (to Beastie Boys’ Adam Horowitz) and was temporarily sidelined by illness. But regardless, this is an artist who brings the same fire to coming back from Lyme disease as she does to savaging sexism, and the results are inspiring in a whole new way. SA

13. ‘Rude Boy’ (1980)

All Ray Grange wants is to quit his depressing day gig and go be a roadie for the Clash — and thanks to a bit of luck regarding his career opportunities, he gets his wish. The group eventually disowned filmmakers Jack Hazan and David Mingay’s portrait of a “typical” punk orbiting Joe Strummer and Co.’s white-hot sun, and there are no shortage of docs on the quartet’s rise and fall (we highly recommend Westway to the World and Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten). But this is the movie that really capture the Only Band That Mattered as they were hitting their peak, offering both peripheral context to their leftist philosophies and performance footage that’s downright incendiary. “London’s Burning” indeed. DF

12. ‘The Punk Rock Movie’ (1978)

A DJ at the legendary punk club The Roxy, Don Letts had a front row seat to the then-burgeoning scene. “My white mates were picking up guitars,” he said in a recent Sight & Sound article, “[and] such was the energy that I wanted to pick up something too.” That turned out to be a Super 8 camera, which the future Big Audio Dynamite member used to document everything from early performances of the Clash, the Sex Pistols, and Generation X to the Slits goofing around in the streets. Seen today, it’s a satellite transmission from Punk Ground Zero, an appropriately scrappy look at a few bands that just wanted to make noise and others who’d go on to change the world. DF

11. ‘Smithereens’ (1982)

From the tattered apartments of the East Village to abandoned lots underneath the West Side Highway, Susan Seidelman’s drama about a narcissistic, manipulative Jersey girl (Susan Berman) doubles as a document of the broken city that had spawned the downtown punk scene. That, along with a score by underground weirdos the Feelies, gets the film on this list — but it doesn’t hurt that Richard Hell (Television, the Voidoids) shows up to play a poor-man’s version of himself, a hungry rock star who might periodically nod off before sex. Folks tend to romanticize that no-man’s-land era of the LES as a punk-fueled Golden Age; this movie brings the moment right back down to gritty, grimy Earth. EGP

10. ‘Jubilee’ (1978)

It’s been called “the first punk film,” but Derek Jarman’s 1978 feature turns the subculture’s oppositional stance back on itself: It’s like a guerrilla Shakespeare production staged in a mosh pit. While the Sex Pistols sneered at Queen Elizabeth II, Jarman cast his lot with the original Her Majesty E., who travels through time to a dystopian Britain ruled by roving gangs. Appearances by Adam Ant, the Slits and Siouxsie and the Banshees, along with U.S. trans icon Jayne County, ground it in the moment, but Jarman’s suggestion that even the most vocal nihilists would sell out their ideals — if given enough encouragement, naturally — provided a glimpse of the future. SA

9. ‘Another State of Mind’ (1984)

In 1982, Youth Brigade singer Shawn Stern bought a schoolbus and set off to do a cross-country spreading of the gospel with fellow SoCal band Social Distortion. The utopian concept of being punk Johnny Appleseeds falls apart when they get to DC and the latter band implodes; thankfully, some kids named Minor Threat (!) let them stay at their house in D.C. This extraordinary feature-length tour diary is chock full of incredible sequences (Baby-faced Mike Ness working out the chord progression for the title song; Ian MacKaye at his day job serving Haagen Dazs ice cream; a primer on how to slam dance), but more than anything, it’s an invaluable time capsule for the era’s D.I.Y. ethos. This is what it meant to be an American punk-rock band: testosterone-fueled infighting, hand-to-mouth living, reliance on the kindness of strangers’ fridges and couches, and playing the occasional life-changing shows. DF

8. ‘Sid and Nancy’ (1986)

It’s tough to watch Gary Oldman portray Sid Vicious, the doomed bassist of the Sex Pistols, less than a decade after the iconic punk’s demise — but man, can that actor nod off! A classic biopic that chronicles the relationship of punk’s original celebrity couple, Sid and Nancy achieved almost instant cult status due to its critical reception and gritty portrayal of addicts in love. Chloe Webb embodies eternal punk groupie Nancy Spungen, nailing her caustic squeal (though up-and-comer Courtney Love was originally vying for the role) and Oldman easily pulls off singing like Sid on covers like “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and “My Way.” But what makes the film a classic is the skill with which the leads are so believable as heroin addicts, pivoting from intense love to hatred and dope sickness, all while maintaining the couple’s signature snarl. EGP

7. ‘Ladies and Gentleman the Fabulous Stains’ (1982)

Revolutions have been started with less than hair dye, a few catchy songs and attitude to spare — so why shouldn’t singer Corinne “Third-Degree” Burns kick off a mass rebellion? Lou Adler’s look at a smalltime punk band who strikes a chord is filled with real-life musicians from the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Tubes. But it’s Diane Lane’s portrayal of the Stains’ frontwoman, all skunk-style ‘do and first-rate sneer, that’s turned this movie into a punk-cult classic. Everyone from underground-cinema legend Sarah Jacobson to Courtney Love have pledged allegiance to Burns; her quote “They have such big plans for this world, and they don’t include us” could be a punk mantra, whether uttered in 1982, 1999, or 2016. DF

6. ‘The Blank Generation’ (1976)

New York City, 1976: Bands like Television, Talking Heads, Blondie, the Ramones and Patti Smith are making CBGBs their home away from home, turning the downtown club into a musically experimental laboratory. Amos Poe and Ivan Král’s black-and-white 16mm flick is essentially a home movie of the moment, with bands hanging out, palling around and occasionally playing, albeit without sync sound — which just makes it more punk. (Note: This should not be confused with the 1980 movie Blank Generation produced by Andy Warhol, which does feature a brief performance of the title song by Richard Hell and the Voidods.) DF

5. ‘Repo Man’ (1984)

Wherein punk goes sci-fi. Perhaps the pinnacle of weird in Emilio Estevez’s career, his antihero Otto is a L.A. hardcore kid for whom slam-dancing with his squatter friends no longer fills the void. So he reluctantly teams up to steal cars with a repo man named Bud (a perfectly grizzled Harry Dean Stanton), only to end up at the center of a government conspiracy involving aliens. Director Alex Cox makes the soundtrack as oddball and California-dystopian as the rest of the film, showcasing Black Flag, Suicidal Tendencies and Fear long before they hit the aboveground radar. But the best one, perhaps, is the Circle Jerks’ head-tilting cameo — performing as a lounge act, they cover their own “When the Shit Hits the Fan” in sequin tuxes. Keith Morris even scats for a moment. EGP

4. ‘Rock and Roll High School’ (1979)

The 2003 documentary End of the Century does a fine job laying out the ins and outs of the Ramones’ career. To see the beautifully sloppy, brilliantly simplistic band at its best, however, you head straight to this Roger Corman-produced teensploitation gem, in which Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Marky help P.J. Soles and the student body of Vince Lombardi High stand up to authority, three chords at a time. They even include singalong lyrics to “Teenage Lobotomy” so kids can croon in unison with them! Joey serenading our heroine with “I Want You Around” still makes us swoon, and the explosive (no, really) version of the title track remains a pitch-perfect wish-fulfilment scene. DF

3. ‘Suburbia’ (1983)

The antithesis to the parent-friendly punks of Valley Girl, director Penelope Spheeris’ stark, sobering look at the new generation gap pits ageing California hippies against their disillusioned kids. “The Rejected,” as the gang of runaways in the film call themselves, build the kind of supportive, loving family they never had at home. But most of the adults in the neighbourhood see the mohawks and vandalism as proof of their delinquency — no, it does not end well. Spheeris cast real-life punks to play the kids — including the future Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea — and included sets by scene luminaries like D.I., TSOL, and the Vandals, who do a great version of “Pat Brown.” T.R. for life. EGP

2. ‘The Filth and the Fury’ (2000)

There are numerous movies that feature the Sex Pistols in all there anarchic glory, from Lech Kowalski’s punk primer D.O.A. (1978) to the that-was-the-tour-that-was epitaph The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle (1980). But no movie puts the Pistols into the proper context, or demonstrates why we’re still talking about this band decades later, than Julien Temple’s history of the group’s supernova moment in the spotlight. The “God Save the Queen” boat trip, the Bill Grundy interview that baited the band to notoriety, the self-destructive cult of Sid, the doomed U.S. tour — it’s all here, as well as candid interviews with the members. (John Lydon’s tearful “He died, for fuck’s sake” plea about tearing away Vicious’ druggie-chic allure is absolutely heartbreaking.) Never mind the other docs. Here’s the definitive one. DF

1. ‘The Decline of Western Civilization’ (1981)

Black Flag, X, the Germs, Fear, Circle Jerks — Penelope Spheeris’ look at the Los Angeles scene is a virtual roll call of the MVPs who’d help turn the region into a hardcore/punk Mecca. (Missing in action is the Minutemen, who’d thankfully get their own stem-to-stern study, We Jam Econo, in 2005.) The performance footage alone makes this worthy of study by musicologists and historians. There are too many great scenes to mention: Chuck Dukowski’s Colt 45-induced giggling, Fear baiting their audience (then getting into a massive fistfight), Darby Crash bonding with a tarantula and bantering about injuries, the what-me-worry vibe of the candid li’l punker interviews. But what makes this doc invaluable, however, is the way the movie’s you-are-there portrait drops you right into moment of maximum combustion, as volatile performers and violent crowds feed off each other in a nihilistic free-for-all. People talk about how dangerous, disruptive, damaged, often damaging and, for many, defining American punk was in the early Reagan era. Watch this, and you’ll know why. DF