I'll admit that my knowledge of American Punk music of the late 70s and early 80s (or even the British variety, for that matter) is sorely lacking. As a kid I listened to the same music my father did, which is to say almost exclusively 50s rock n' roll and 60s doo-wop. I'm still a big fan--you should hear my karaoke version of "Under the Boardwalk" by The Drifters or the old standard "Stand By Me." Then about the time I got my first car and had a tape-deck that was entirely under my control, something strange happened--I leapt from The Coasters and Chubby Checker directly into Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and Ozzy Osbourne. In my jump-cut from sideburns-sporting crooner to denim-vested metalhead, I somehow gave the American punk movement a complete miss.
And yet I can still sing along with most of the REO Speedwagon tunes I hear on the radio. Where's the justice in that?
My point is, this is a gaping hole in my music education, and one I've never quite been able to fill. Sure, I own several Misfits cds and a kickass Ramones compilation I never get tired of, but everything else is hazy and indistinct. Therefore I was very interested to view the recent DVD offering from MVD Entertainment Group, the 1980 punk drama Blank Generation, featuring influential punkers Richard Hell and the Voidoids.
Note: MVD Entertainment provided a DVD of Blank Generation to MMMMMovies for review purposes.
Blank Generation is not a documentary, as one might first presume.* It's fiction, a drama in the time-honored "talented kid finds success and discovers it's not all it's cracked up to be" mold. It does have many other points of interest for scholars of the era, however: apart from several live performances by Richard Hell and the Voidoids, it also features footage shot at the world-famous CBGBs, not to mention a time-capsule portrait of pre-Disneyfied NYC. Also, pop-art icon Andy Warhol pops in for a brief and typically baffling cameo.
*Adding to the confusion: there is a documentary with almost the same title, The Blank Generation (1976), about the same scene at about the same time, also featuring Richard Hell and footage from CBGBs.
Richard Hell plays Billy, a suitably sullen punk-rock poet whose band has just been signed to a Big Label thanks to the machinations of smarmy long-haired A&R guy Jack (Howard Grant, whom I mistook for New York Dolls' frontman David Johansen for the entire feature running time). He also draws the attention of French TV journalist Nada (the gorgeous Carole Bouquet), who first interviews him for her nebulous feature about the triumphs and pitfalls of fame in America (or something). Soon enough, and strictly according to formula, the French woman starts starts a torrid and tempestuous affair with the blank-faced youth. This soon draws the attention of her German documentarian lover Hoffritz, who comes to New York to see Nada while tracking down the elusive Andy Warhol for his latest feature. Jealousy, heartbreak, and lots of heavily-accented screaming ensue.
Blank Generation is...well, pretty bad, frankly. We never get to know Billy's band (the Voidoids)--in fact, apart from the live performances scattered throughout the film, Billy never seems to hang out/interact with his fellow musicians in any way in his day-to-day life. They're not even present while he lays down his vocal tracks in the studio! Furthermore, the only evidence we ever get of his meteoric rise to fame is what the characters tell us while brooding in their apartments--no screaming fans, no lust-crazed groupies, no press interest (apart from Nada, who works for French TV and is more interested in Billy's off-stage activities IYKWIM). And since Billy is always sullen and...well, BLANK--it's hard to see why he suddenly storms offstage in the middle of one performance, though he later tells us he's "sick of it all." We just have to take his word for it, I guess.
Now rock history is littered with big stars who made crappy actors (Elvis, anyone?), so perhaps Hell's inability to emote can be forgiven. Bouquet's terrible performance is harder to forgive, but she's at least pretty. What can't be forgiven is the shoddy script and haphazard direction. These characteristics will come as no surprise to those familiar with the film's director: Ulli Lommel. A member of the Fassbinder circle who made a splash with the well-received The Tenderness of Wolves (1973), Lommel went on to a downright odoriferous career that included 1980 scare flick The Boogeyman and its horrible sequels, and culminated in recent years with a series of direct-to-dvd films about just about every serial killer whose story he could get the rights to.
Uwe Boll, only he lacks the skewed sense of humor and good-natured hubris that for me makes Dr. Boll's videogame disasters so oddly fascinating. In Lommel's film, motivations are nonexistent, eccentricities are lame and unbuyable, and entire scenes unspool as if the director went out to lunch and someone simply left the camera running.
An early scene in which Billy and Nada try to decide whether to stay in town or go to the beach seems to be reaching for some theme about emotional blankness, but ends up in a silly and horribly acted screaming fit from Bouquet, with Hell standing by looking alternated bored and baffled. Later Nada conducts an extended interview with an American football player whose injury ended his career, and Lommel seems to be reaching again for meaning--something about the exploitation of the athlete being analogous to the exploitation of the artist, maybe?--but it's never developed. Billy later takes up with a female film student who has grand ideas about the democratization of art thanks to portable video cameras, but the idea fizzles before it's out of the vacuous actress's mouth.
Crispin Glover totally nailed it in The Doors.)
After the movie I didn't know quite what to expect from the lone DVD extra, a 45 minute interview with star Richard Hell, presided over by Luc Sante, but this interview pretty much makes the pain of sitting through the movie worthwhile. Richard Hell seems like a very intelligent, thoughtful fellow who knows more than a little about filmmaking, and he also seems frankly astounded that the movie turned out as badly as it did. "I was really searching," Hell tells Sante, "and there's really not a single authentic, truthful moment in the whole movie...it's just COMPLETELY false...All that fetishism about video recording...it had no meaning! It was just meant to be chic..."
The Tenderness of Wolves, but soon became convinced that Lommel had little to do with that film's impressiveness. ("Fassbinder edited it, Raab wrote it...") He calls the experience of acting in the film "painful" and "infuriating," as the actors basically had no direction and no script. Most entertainingly, he implies that Lommel wrote himself into the movie (he played Nada's lover Hoffritz) because he was nonsensically jealous of Hell's centrality and his offscreen relationship with one of the actresses. "He was a former child star...spoiled and narcissistic." Even if untrue, it's a much better story than anything in the actual film.
Hell also has some interesting things to say about "youthsploitation" in movies, and in an entertaining aside claims that his only consolation is that he was a better actor than Bob Dylan, if not approaching him otherwise. Luc Sante is also erudite and engaging, making the interview on this well-done DVD presentation a must-watch.
If only the same could be said of the movie.