Long live punk rock! There’s a line in Hulu’s series Pistol about the Sex Pistols (which is based on guitarist Steve Jones’ memoir Lonely Boy: Tales From a Sex Pistol) where Johnny Rotten muses, “Actually, we’re not into music, we’re into chaos.” And what is punk rock if not chaos that exists in a state of musical anarchy? The Sex Pistols were born out of a desire to rage against how “terribly boring” England was in the late 1970s.
Punk rock as a genre emerged in the mid-1970s out of a mix of 1960s style garage rock when musicians of the era rejected the sounds of mainstream soft rock that had taken over the airwaves. Specifically, punk rockers reacted to the overproduced, slick, excesses of music of the era. Punk rock songs are typically very short with rapid-fire lyrics often screamed into the microphone. It is frenetic, full of energy, and impossible to ignore. The genre was (and is) influenced by the Glam rock movement in the UK such as T. Rex and The New York Dolls, and The Stooges and MC5 are also often cited as early inspirations for punk rock bands that emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Over the years, a number of films have embraced the ethos of punk rock and offered viewers a look into the anachronistic lifestyles of punk rockers. While doing this, these films also delivered some pretty amazing soundtracks. Let’s take a look at a handful of the best punk rock movie soundtracks, and join in as we sing along to the Sex Pistols song Anarchyin the UK, “‘Cause I wanna be anarchy, it’s the only way to be …”
8 Valley Girl (1983)
“Like, oh-my-god, gag me with a spoon!” She’s a Valley Girl in this classic from 1983 which exposed the world to both Nicolas Cage and the mall culture of Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley. Deborah Foreman is the shopaholic titular character and the young Cage as the Hollywood punk with a sensitive side. While this is obviously not a punk film, it does memorably skewer both that culture and the plastic materialism it is against. Director Martha Coolidge showed her credibility with an excellent soundtrack, even if acts including The Clash did not make it into the film due to the difficulty (ie cost) of getting the licensing rights for them. The official soundtrack includes songs from the Plimsouls, Josie Cotton, Bonnie Haynes with the Wild Combo, Felony, Modern English, and Sparks.
7 SLC Punk (1998)
Matthew Lillard may have played Shaggy in Scooby-Doobut he’s utterly different as punk rocker Stevo in SLC Punk. The film was written and directed by James Merendino, who grew up a punk rocker in conservative Salt Lake City, Utah; you know what they say, write what you know. The plot is certainly aided by an incredible soundtrack featuring the Exploited, Fear, Suicide Machines, The Specials, The Stooges, Blondie, the Ramones, Fifi, Velvet Underground, the Dead Kennedys, Moondogg, the Adolescents, and Generation X.
6 Ladies and Gentlemen the Fabulous Stains (1982)
Ladies and Gentlemen the Fabulous Stains was directed by legendary record producer Lou Adler. The film is about a female fronted (Diane Lane in a sublime performance) third-rate punk band who find success, and is peppered with cameos from bona fide punk rockers from the Sex Pistols and the Clash. Since this was directed by a record producer, the soundtrack delivers with a wide range of good and more obscure punk music, with songs from Lawnboy, The Metal Corpses, the Looters, and, of course, the great fake band Fabulous Stains.
5 Repo Man (1984)
In the ’80s, Emilio Estevez was at the height of his celebrity, so taking on Repo Man did seem like a strange choice for him. He played Otto, a punk rocker looking for a cure to his perpetual boredom. He teams up with a repo man played by a brilliant Harry Dean Stanton, and ends up in the middle of a government conspiracy about aliens in this ridiculous ’80s cult classic from one of the most ‘punk’ directors, Alex Cox. 1984 was a wild year, y’all. The soundtrack for Repo Man is phenomenal with songs from Iggy Pop, Black Flag, Suicidal Tendencies, Fear, Circle Jerks, Juicy Bananas, Burning Sensation, and the Plugz.
4 Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979)
Rock n Roll High School was produced by Roger “The Pope of Pop Cinema” Corman and is a perfect example of a teensploitation film. Based on the iconic song from the Ramones, the movie starred Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Marky Ramone, who inspired the students at Vince Lombardi High School to stand up to authority. The soundtrack is amazing, featuring the music of the Ramones, Devo, PJ Soles, Todd Rundgren, Brian Eno, Eddie and the Hot Rods, Brownsville Station, Nick Lowe, and Alice Cooper.
3 Suburbia (1983)
Suburbia was directed by Penelope Spheeris, whose list of credits reads like a rock n roll resume (her Decline of Wester Civilization trilogy are probably the greatest rock documentaries ever made). Suburbia takes a look at the bleak world of aging hippies and their disillusioned kids in California. The parents are offended by the kids’ Mohawks and safety pin earrings – totally forgetting their own era of rebellion. The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea had an early role in this film. The soundtrack features music from The Vandals, TSOL, and Alex Gibson.
2 Sid and Nancy (1986)
Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen are the punk rock couple of all punk rock couples, and one of the most destructive couples in movies. Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb were 28 and 30 at the time this film was made, whereas Sid and Nancy were 21 and 20 at the time of their deaths, but they do a mesmerizingly ingenious job at inhabiting the Sex Pistols singer and his girlfriend. The Alex Cox film follows the couple’s relationship through its explosive ups and downs all the way to its tragic end. The soundtrack features music from the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones, Circle Jerks, Joe Strummer, Pray for Rain, The Pogues, and John Cale.
1 Smithereens (1982)
Susan Berman played Wren, a spoiled, narcissistic girl from New Jersey who finds herself immersed in the punk scene of Manhattan’s East Village. Richard Hell (from the legendary bands Television and the Voidoids) plays a fictional version of himself, giving this film serious punk rock credibility. Smithereens also perfectly depicts the dirty punk atmosphere of the Lower East Side, home to the late, much missed, iconic CBGBs. The soundtrack for this film is a classic with music from The Feelies, The Nitecaps, Dave Weckerman, ESG, Raybeats, and uncredited songs from Richard Hell.
Outside individual songs, the film’s score is composed by The Feelies themselves, and Susan Seidelman’s direction uses music in brilliant ways. This was a landmark indie movie before the huge wave of American indies in the ’90s, and was actually the very first American independent film to compete for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.