25 Essential Punk Rock Movies

Penelope Spheeris’ legendary The Decline of Western Civilization trilogy finally saw home video release this week — and, in case you hadn’t noticed, everyone at Flavorwire is pretty excited about that. The Decline movies aren’t just classics of the documentary form; the first and third entries in the series also belong in the punk-rock cinema canon. So to celebrate their reemergence, we’ve rounded up 25 essential punk movies, from arthouse oddities to awesomely cheesy exploitation flicks to groundbreaking nonfiction films. And because a list like this can never be complete, why not add your personal favorite in the comments?

Still image from "The Decline of Western Civilization"

The Decline of Western Civilization (dir. Penelope Spheeris, 1981)

LA’s punk scene took a while longer than New York’s or London’s to develop, but it was in full, festering flower by the time Spheeris aimed her camera at a handful of local acts in 1979 and 1980. Along with performances by Black Flag, Germs, X, Alice Bag Band, Catholic Discipline, and (perhaps unfortunately) Fear, this determinedly raw documentary captures a subculture in all its contradictions. The very young musicians — and their fans — spew outsider wisdom and total nonsense in equal measure. Shocking moments of racism, sexism, and homophobia plague a scene that is nonetheless, by all appearances and accounts, quite diverse. And though there’s plenty of humor, there’s also something deeply sad about some of these characters’ nihilism — particularly considering that Germs frontman Darby Crash died by suicide between the film’s completion and its premiere. Spheeris does the whole mess justice by remaining neutral, neither interfering with her subjects nor judging them. –Judy Berman

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Jubilee (dir. Derek Jarman, 1978)

Derek Jarman’s Jubilee is the most overtly political punk film ever made, but the reasons for watching it are largely musical. Brian Eno did the score, and there are performances from The Slits, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Wayne (later known as Jayne) County, and Adam and the Ants interspersed amid the future-dystopia-meets-historical-fiction chaos. At times, the plot is hard to follow, but it all boils down to a late-‘70s British punk satire in which total anarchy is achieved, the caste system is dismantled by sex-crazed punk criminals, and an incognito Queen Elizabeth I is transported forward in time to witness it all. — Jillian Mapes

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Sid and Nancy (dir. Alex Cox, 1986)

Did Sex Pistol Sid Vicious kill his girlfriend Nancy Spungen at the Chelsea Hotel, one October day in 1978? Repo Man and Straight to Hell director Alex Cox’s biopic doesn’t quite solve that mystery, but it certainly paints a vivid picture of their mutually — and in all likelihood fatally — destructive romance. Casting Gary Oldman as Sid was a stroke of brilliance, and Chloe Webb more than holds her own as the painfully American Nancy. As a bonus, the movie also features a very young, pre-fame Courtney Love in the small role of Nancy’s friend Gretchen. –JB

Afro-Punk (dir. James Spooner, 2003)

During the year of its release, James Spooner’s documentary dominated the conversation in punk-rock circles, naming and centering an experience that too often went ignored. Featuring icons (including members of Bad Brains and Fishbone) and then-new voices (Tamar-kali, TV on the Radio) alike, Afro-Punk asks hard questions about race in punk rock, and points out the hypocrisy inherent in a scene that claims to be open-minded and accepting of outsiders but consistently marginalizes African Americans. After its debut, the Afro-Punk team continued the conversation by founding an online community and launching an annual festival that remains one of Brooklyn’s best summer events. –JB

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Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (dir. Allan Arkush and Joe Dante, 1979)

In which the Ramones go back to high school! Well, sort of — they’re summoned as avatars of all that is rock and/or roll by a bunch of disaffected students after their straitlaced principal (played by former Warhol superstar Mary Woronov, incidentally) tries to set fire to their punk records. No one would pretend this is a masterpiece of cinematic art, but it’s a whole lot of fun. — Tom Hawking

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Breaking Glass (dir. Brian Gibson, 1980)

Hazel O’Connor got her own big break in this British film about a brilliant and prickly young woman’s excruciatingly slow rise to punk renown and, subsequently, mainstream superstardom — followed, in high proto-Behind the Music style, by a precipitous downfall. In a 2014 interview about the experience of making Breaking Glass, O’Connor recalled, “I daydreamed three things: a) at the auditions they go, ‘My God, she’s amazing – let’s give her the lead’; b) they ask me to write the film’s songs; c) I end up making an album with David Bowie’s producer, Tony Visconti, who was in charge of the soundtrack. And everything I wished for came true.” Her soundtrack remains the movie’s highlight. –JB

Punk: Attitude (dir. Don Letts, 2005)

Punk-rock polymath Don Letts made what might well have been the first punk-rock movie (1978’s excitingly titled The Punk Rock Movie), so it seems appropriate that it was he who, 30 years later, would make one of the best documentaries about the movement’s legacy and aftermath. As the title suggests, Letts’ film focuses on the idea of punk as an attitude, and one that can inform aspects of one’s life that go far beyond music and fashion. The list of names he gets to contribute to the film is pretty impressive — as well as the omnipresent likes of Henry Rollins and Thurston Moore, there are interviews with figures as diverse as John Cale, Captain Sensible, and the redoubtable Ari Up. — TH

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Valley Girl (dir. Martha Coolidge, 1983)

Undeniably silly but also lots of fun, Valley Girl is very much an ‘80s teen romantic comedy. The star-crossed lovers in question are valley girl Julie (Deborah Foreman) and Hollywood punk Randy (Nicolas Cage), who overcome such obstacles as Julie’s meathead boyfriend and Randy’s tryst with an old girlfriend to unite two of Southern California’s most oppositional youth subcultures. But perhaps the best thing Valley Girl gave the world was Josie Cotton’s live, prom-scene performance of “Johnny Are You Queer?” –JB

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Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains (dir. Lou Adler, 1982)

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains may be a cult classic now (not to mention a parade of future movie stars and punk legends), but at the time of its release, the film struggled to find distribution and didn’t end up on the arthouse scene for several years. That must have been a huge disappointment to music impresario Lou Adler, who directed the all-too-real satire of overnight fame. Diane Lane stars as Corinne Burns, a disaffected teen using punk rock as her outlet. Her extreme appearance mixed with stage rants and lyrics like, “we don’t put out” are misinterpreted as punk feminism, which quickly spawns full-on Stains-mania via female journalists. It all falls apart spectacularly, particularly when the Stains — who also include a young Laura Dern — go on tour with The Looters, a rowdy group of would-be romantic interests including Paul Simonon from The Clash and former members of the Sex Pistols. — JM

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Repo Man (dir. Alex Cox, 1984)

Perhaps Cox’s most cultishly celebrated film, Repo Man is the story of the down-and-out punk Otto Maddox (Emilio Estevez), who accepts a job (from Harry Dean Stanton!) repossessing cars for the Helping Hand Acceptance Corporation. Though he was reluctant to become a repo man, Otto begins to enjoy his exciting new life… and then things start to get really weird. Like, aliens weird.

In a lengthy and candid discussion of the film on his website, Cox writes that Repo Man was about:

Nuclear War. Of course. What else could it be about? And the demented society that contemplated the possibility thereof. Repoing people’s cars and hating alien ideologies were only the tip of the iceberg. The iceberg itself was the maniac culture  which had elected so-called “leaders” named Reagan and Thatcher, who were  prepared to sacrifice everything — all life on earth — to a gamble based on the longevity of the Soviet military, and the whims of their corporate masters.

— JB

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The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle (dir. Julien Temple, 1980)

A Sex Pistols film! What could possibly go wrong?! This film is a disaster, honestly, largely because it was made when the Sex Pistols really hated one another (as opposed to most of the band’s history, where they just kind of hated one another), and it’s all from the perspective of Malcolm McLaren, which — surprise! — gives one the impression that he was the driving creative force behind the band. Still, it’s worth seeing, if only as a document of its time. — TH

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Smithereens (dir. Susan Seidelman, 1982)

Desperately Seeking Susan director Seidelman’s first feature is the story of Wren (Susan Berman), a ruthlessly ambitious newcomer hoping to make a name for herself in the New York punk scene. Unfortunately, Wren is both a little bit too late and a little bit too short on talent to realize her dreams — though she does at least score a deliciously awful partner in crime, Eric, played by none other than Richard Hell. And Hell isn’t the only downtown icon to appear in the film; Cookie Mueller has a great cameo, and Seidelman entrusted the soundtrack to The Feelies. –JB

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Desperate Living (dir. John Waters, 1977)

Beloved though he is among freaks of all stripes, John Waters rarely gets the punk-rock credit he deserves. While you could say that all of his films embody punk’s anarchic ethos, and his earliest efforts definitely share its DIY spirit, Desperate Living remains Waters’ most dementedly anti-establishment effort. Released in the sacred punk year 1977 — and known as Punk Story in Italy — it follows a housewife (Mink Stole) and the maid/lover (Jean Hill) who kills her husband after they are exiled to the exceedingly bizarre, outcast-filled town of Mortville, which happens to be in the midst of an uprising against its evil ruler, Edith Massey’s Queen Carlotta. Among its many virtues, Desperate Living is endlessly quotable. “A single gunshot can never kill the beauty of fascism!” is the opening line of the best Dead Kennedys song never written. –JB

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Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten (dir. Julien Temple, 2007)

Thirty years after The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, Julien Temple returned to punk filmmaking in 2007, with a much more somber subject: the life and premature death of Clash frontman Joe Strummer, who died suddenly in late 2002 of an undiagnosed heart condition. For anyone (like your correspondent) on whose life Stummer’s work was a great influence, Temple’s film is pretty emotional viewing, but it’s also compulsory for anyone who wants to understand the life of one of punk’s genuinely great figures. — TH

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Straight to Hell (dir. Alex Cox, 1986)

And speaking of Joe, he’s got a starring role in what may be the world’s only punk Western (which, incidentally, takes its name from one of the The Clash’s finest songs). Alex Cox’s film is a sort of absurdist take on the Spaghetti Western, set in an isolated desert town where everyone’s addicted to coffee. The whole thing is a sort of endearing shambles, and you get the impression that everyone involved (including, amongst others, Dennis Hopper and a young Courtney Love) had a blast making it. — TH

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Suburbia (dir. Penelope Spheeris, 1984)

The fact that it was directed by Decline trilogy filmmaker Spheeris and produced by “King of the B Movies” Roger Corman pretty much sums up everything great about this piece of loving punksploitation. Featuring such ‘80s SoCal scene staples as T.S.O.L. and The Vandals, Suburbia nails the look and feel of “punk houses” — and mixes in a heaping helping of melodrama. –JB

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Times Square (dir. Allan Moyle, 1980)

The daughter of a politician trying to clean up Times Square and a street kid with a rap sheet meet at a mental hospital and decide to make a break for it. The Sleez Sisters, an underground punk band, is born. Tim Curry plays the late-night DJ who helps spread their message to doctors and parents across the airwaves. The soundtrack alternates between new wave and punk. The premise is pure fantasy, with genuine emotion and a vérité grittiness absent from many teen rebellion tales. The lesbian subtext was toned down for the final cut, which leaves you wondering what might have been. — Alison Nastasi

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Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam (dir. Omar Majeed, 2009)

Art imitated life in the years following the publication of Muslim convert Michael Muhammad Knight’s 2003 novel The Taqwacores, which imagined what an Islamic punk community might look like. Inspired to make music — or at least to come together — by Knight’s vision, a handful of bands began to identify with the “Taqwacore” label. Omar Majeed’s documentary follows a 2007 tour that brought these diverse acts together, drawing media attention and backlash, but most importantly providing an opportunity for the musicians and their audience to build the very real community they had formed. Although Knight’s novel and Taqwacore itself have become controversial (and not just among anti-Muslim groups; some bands who were originally involved with the movement eventually distanced themselves from it), the film remains a fascinating examination of the intersection between an unfairly maligned faith and an art form that has always worn its outsider status with pride. –JB

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Josie and the Pussycats (dir. Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan, 2001)

This loose adaptation of Archie Comics characters shares similarities with zany films starring real-life music stars — like Help! or Spice World — in the sense that a conspiracy theory sits at the heart of the action. But the specific scenario — the government trying to brainwash teenagers with subliminal messages in manufactured pop songs — is such a punk statement in the context of early-‘00s music. Perhaps that’s why the musical comedy bombed at the box office, but has taken on a new life as a cult classic. — JM

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A Band Called Death (dir. Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett, 2012)

Music geeks can argue for hours about who actually qualifies as the First Punk Band Ever, and the late ’60s and early ’70s offer no shortage of candidates. One of the most compelling of these proto-punk groups is Death, a trio of brothers from Detroit, Michigan who formed in 1971. A few years later, they were recording fierce, political rock music that the music industry judged too harsh for the American public. It took three decades for Death’s music to be rediscovered (and re-released). A Band Called Death tells the brothers’ story, in one of the few truly inspirational titles in the punk cinema canon. As the LA Times‘ Robert Abele notes in his review, “Joy and redemption aren’t exactly punk mantras, but A Band Called Death might just give your heart a thrashing.” — JB

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Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore (dir. Sarah Jacobson, 1997)

Perhaps the one punk-rock movie that should be required viewing in every high school health class, Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore follows the titular teenager as she (somewhat traumatically) dispenses with her virginity and learns everything she needs to know about sex — both by doing it and in frank conversations with her older, punkish coworkers at the local arthouse cinema. Though it’s conspicuously ‘90s DIY in aesthetic, the film feels startlingly contemporary in the fearlessness with which it explores the awkward, uncomfortable, and occasionally revelatory aspects of sex from a female perspective. –JB

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Out of the Blue (dir. Dennis Hopper, 1980)

Dennis Hopper was originally just hired to play the incarcerated truck driver father in this bleak small-town drama, but he ended up rewriting the script and directing the film. His role is central to the feeling of spiraling out of control that defines Out of the Blue, but its real star is Linda Manz in the role of Cebe, an androgynous teenager whose only solace is Elvis and punk rock. Out of the Blue is the least overtly punk movie on this list, but its nihilistic tone makes it a must-see for anyone in a punk rock state of mind. — JM

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The Punk Singer (dir. Sini Anderson, 2013)

Outspoken riot grrrl leader Kathleen Hanna had taken some time away from the spotlight when, in 2010, Sini Anderson started making this documentary, which chronicles the personal side of Hanna’s feminist punk activism. The reason for her absence was revealed within the film: the Bikini Kill singer has Lyme disease. With this revelation, The Punk Singer shifts to become a redemptive story about Hanna’s fight to live with the disease and still do what she loves (and what the world wants from her): stirring things up with her songs. — JM

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The Blank Generation (dir. Amos Poe and Ivan Král)

There are two films from the punk era that boast a title pulled from Richard Hell and the Voidoids’ 1977 debut album. The first stars Hell alongside Rainer Werner Fassbinder muse Ulli Lommel (who directed and co-wrote the film with Hell), Andy Warhol, and Chanel model Carole Bouquet. But the 1976 documentary The Blank Generation, directed by no wave filmmaking icon Amos Poe and guitarist Ivan Král, is probably a better bet. Starring punk and new wave luminaries before they made it big, and filmed on grainy 16mm at CBGB when it was still just another scuzzy club, The Blank Generation captures a slice of the scene before the Sex Pistols’ album art was featured on a credit card. — AN

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We Are the Best! (dir. Lukas Moodysson, 2013)

There’s a certain magic to the moment when a young outcast connects with someone or something — whether it’s music, another art form, or a different pursuit entirely — that makes them feel understood. Lukas Moodysson’s recent film, set in 1980s Stockholm, is one of cinema’s most vividly drawn tributes to that moment. Bobo and Klara, 13-year-old girls who dress like boys and endure endless harassment for their weirdness, enlist a third, the musically talented Christian guitarist Hedvig, to form a punk band that will supremely piss off the boys who torment them. The band is awful, in the beginning — but, of course, it is also the best. And the film is structured loosely enough that we also get to follow the girls as they take their first tentative steps towards romance and catch glimpses of their family lives. –JB