The concert movie Urgh! A Music War (1982), which Chicago Film Society will screen on Monday at Music Box, is an invaluable document of late punk, post-punk, and new wave music, with live performances by XTC, Devo, Gang of Four, Oingo Boingo, Magazine, Gary Numan, Klaus Nomi, the Cramps, the Fleshtones, the Go-Go’s, the Dead Kennedys, the Police, and more. Here are five additional films that showcase the 80s’ gritty, original, sometimes experimental, and always vibrant new sounds.
The Decline of Western Civilization
Eugene, the bitter little skinhead whose interview opens this still potent 1981 documentary about Los Angeles punk rock, declares that he likes the music because “there’s no rock stars.” Director Penelope Spheeris doesn’t seem to agree—she shoots the fan interviews in black and white, while the bands and music people (including Slash Records founder Robert Biggs) comment and perform in color. LA punk lacked the politics of its British and the brains of its New York predecessors, and its proximity to the epicenter of celebrity culture fueled a violent strain of Carter-era nihilism. The live sets by X, Black Flag, the Circle Jerks, the Germs, and Fear, recorded between December 1979 and May 1980, still thunder after all these years; unfortunately so do the scene’s racism, queer baiting, and utter despair. 100 min. —J.R. Jones
Charlie Ahearn’s 1982 cult classic is a semidocumentary about the emergence of graffiti art and hip-hop, which have been inextricably linked from the start. Using subway artist Lee Quinones as the lead and the media’s curiosity about him as a pretext, Ahearn’s narrative meanders through the clubs and rail yards of the South Bronx. Quinones is ill at ease doing the romantic scenes and reading the hokey dialogue, but the street kids around him play themselves naturally. The pacing is slow—inexcusable in a film about music—except when hip-hop takes over, and Ahearn wisely gives plenty of screen time to the likes of Busy Bee, Rock Steady Crew, and Fab Five Freddy. 82 min. —Ted Shen
Alex Cox’s 1984 punk comedy is set in a rotting Los Angeles, where a disaffected adolescent (Emilio Estevez) finds an outlet for his aggression and an answer to his boredom in an apprenticeship with a professional car repossessor (Harry Dean Stanton). Cox’s style is a step beyond camp into a comedy of pure disgust; much of the film is churlishly unpleasant, but there’s a core of genuine anger that gives the project an emotional validation lacking in the flabby American comedies of the early 80s. The narration seems deliberately crude and jerky, as if the nihilism of the tale had infected its telling, and there’s an unfortunate late turn into science fiction spoofiness. But Stanton, strange and wonderful, bridges it all with his uncrackable conviction. With Tracey Walter. 93 min. —Dave Kehr
Stop Making Sense
Jonathan Demme’s 1984 film of Talking Heads in concert is devoid of the usual rockumentary bull—no “candid” backstage interviews with stammering musicians, no cutaways to blissed-out fans bouncing in the aisles. Instead, it’s 88 minutes of solid, inventive music, filmed in a straightforward manner that neither deifies the performers nor encourages an illusory intimacy, but presents the musicians simply as people doing their job and enjoying it. The enlightened humanism of the director of Melvin and Howard is evident in every frame. 88 min. —Dave Kehr
Scripted by rock critic Glenn O’Brien and directed by photographer Edo Bertoglio, this kaleidoscopic tour of the NYC underground was shot in 1981 under the title New York Beat, then lost for many years before being released in 2000. Doomed painter Jean-Michel Basquiat stars as an existential innocent, just released from the hospital, who roams the Lower East Side, making art and encountering an assortment of musical hipsters (including DNA, the Plastics, and Kid Creole & the Coconuts). He’s appealing in the role, which was modeled after him, and though the film digresses too much to cohere as a narrative, it works surprisingly well as a nostalgic document. 72 min. —Ted Shen