Punk the Capital: Building a Sound Movement, 2019.
Directed by James June Schneider and Paul Bishow.
Starring Cynthia Connolly, Dante Ferrando, Skip Groff, H.R., Darryl Jenifer, Kim Kane, Alec MacKaye, Ian MacKaye, Henry Rollins, Howard Wuelfing, Don Zientara, Jeff Nelson.
Punk the Capital: Building a Sound Movement is a chronicle of the punk music scene in Washington, DC – specifically, the sub-genre known as hardcore – during the mid-70s to mid-80s, as bands like Minor Threat and Bad Brains made names for themselves outside the area and many others created legacies within that community. It’s an in-depth look at the birth of a music movement that continues to this day.
I was too young to be aware of the punk rock scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s, but I caught up on the genre when I got into rock music in the mid-80s. I’ve always been a music generalist who appreciates the Sex Pistols as much as The Beatles, so I never dug deep into punk and its hardcore sub-genre, but I’ve always been aware that there was a punk music scene in Washington, DC that rivaled what was happening in New York City and Los Angeles at the time.
Punk the Capital: Building a Sound Movement is a chronicle of that era, charting the rise of a community that was counted in the dozens in the late 70s and became thousands by the mid-80s, at which time many of the long-term adherents moved on. After all, it’s not really punk anymore when the mainstream media is talking about it and kids from the suburbs are showing up at concerts because they want to be seen as cool.
The main players get plenty of coverage here, with Bad Brains and Minor Threat being the ones who garnered the most attention outside of DC at the time. Many of the DC punk bands were of the hardcore variety, and there was a subset of that known as straight edge – meaning they don’t drink or do drugs – which is touched on here too. All of that was known to me, but I also learned about more bands I was previously unaware of, such the Slickee Boys, the Teen Idles, S.O.A., and many others.
There’s no narration in this documentary. Instead, interview clips carry the story over a period of several years, from the scene’s nascent beginnings in the mid-70s through around 1984, which means later bands like Fugazi and Rites of Spring get minimal mentions. Interviewees include: Minor Threat’s Jeff Nelson and Ian MacKaye, who also started the still-running Dischord Records label; Henry Rollins; record store owner and music producer Skip Groff; Howard Wuelfing (Slickee Boys, Nurses, and Half Japanese); music producer Don Zientara; and many others.
Despite the fact that people weren’t walking around with a phone/video camera device in their pockets back then, there’s plenty of archival footage and photos from shows of that era, along with the obligatory shots of regular DC life that highlight the contrast between that city’s position as the nation’s capital and the motley crew of oddballs who played hardcore shows at an art gallery of sorts owned by hippies who had become Yippies.
Apparently much of that visual record exists because many members of the hardcore scene at that time were actually nerdy collectors who liked to save things, as someone remarks at one point. Several interviewees pull out their collections of posters, magazines, and other artifacts from that era – Jeff Nelson expresses bemusement that the poster for Minor Threat’s final show misspelled the band’s named as “Minor Treat.”
In addition, graphical overlays introduce the different eras of the DC hardcore scene’s evolution and chart lines between bands, many of whom shared members between them. They’re a nice touch and help you keep track of who’s who and where you are in the narrative.
DC’s hardcore scene actually continued well beyond 1984 and into this day, with Dischord Records still putting out releases and planning in 2021 to issue a remastered box set of some of the seminal albums of that early era. However, Punk the Capital stops short of covering those later years, choosing instead to keep the focus on how the DC punk scene grew organically, with like-minded teenagers finding each other, forming bands, and seeing varying degrees of success. Many of those musicians are still playing today.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★