'Punk the Capital: Building a Sound Movement' Goes Deeper Than Other D.C. Punk Docs

Directed by Paul Bishow and James June Schneider

Starring Ian MacKaye, Henry Rollins, Jello Biafra, Joe Keithley, Jeff Nelson

BY Vish KhannaPublished May 13, 2021

Among the host of revelatory punk documentaries to emerge in recent years, Punk the Capital: Building a Sound Movement stands out as a truly extraordinary deep dive into the community dynamics and material conditions that spawned the first waves of Washington, D.C., hardcore.

Using rare footage and candid interviews with prominent and lesser-known figures from the region, Punk the Capital will likely resonate with anyone in a "small market" who has attempted, or is currently attempting, to galvanize and nurture a subversive arts community whose members might not always see eye-to-eye about everything, but still make something magical together.

Framed between 1976 and 1983, the film isn't simply a love letter to and origin story about Dischord Records and Bad Brains. Yes, Bad Brains members like H.R. and Darryl Jenifer offer unique perspectives on how their band came to exist, and colleagues like Henry Rollins rightly extol their work, as revolutionary. And Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson of Dischord, as well as their Minor Threat band mates Brian Baker and Lyle Preslar, are featured prominently here. It's fascinating to hear how the label and the band emerged.

But for those of us who have seen other docs and read books on the subject, this is familiar ground. The backstory, however, is not; in fact, for those outside of D.C., it's a bit of lost history that the film excavates to our great benefit. We hear from members of — and see super rare performance and interview footage of — first-wave bands like the Enzymes, the Slickee Boys, Tru Fax and the Insaniacs, the Untouchables, and MacKaye and Nelson's band Teen Idles, among others. We also get insights from external musicians like Dead Kennedys' Jello Biafra and D.O.A.'s Joe "Shithead" Keithley, local event organizers, venue operators, and underground journalists and archivists. Tellingly, virtually everyone here is a character — funny, unique, resolute individuals who lived and seemingly continue to exist happily in the margins, questioning the merits of normalcy in both colourful and understated tones.

We learn about the whole Madams Organ scene, orbiting around the titular makeshift venue and group home for transient residents, which sounded like it housed a bizarre confluence of hippies, yippies and emergent punks looking to make a space for themselves where no other was available.

Despite being the nation's capital and having a large population, in the mid-1970s Washington D.C. held no status as a music city, which gave its creative and organizational types a lot of freedom to just try things without worrying much about "career" repercussions. What a gift relative remoteness can be; community is all the more important in isolation and most D.C. punks fostered connections against all odds to great effect.

Like other punk scenes, the movement in D.C. was rooted in a healthy mix of joy, humour, persistence, talent, obstinacy, and proving naysayers wrong. Were there personality conflicts, generational resentments, philosophical shortcomings and petty larcenies? Oh yes, there were, and they're captured here with matter-of-fact candour and the gift of time and accrued wisdom.

With its previously unseen footage (good lord, when can we see the entire Rites of Spring set featured in the end credits?) and contemporary interviews, and a slick-but-fanzine-like aesthetic, Punk the Capital is thoroughly entertaining and compelling and one of the most refreshing takes on D.C. hardcore ever. That there are still so many new stories to tell and unheralded figures to discover, all these decades later, is a testament to how significant and multi-layered this community's story and cultural contribution really is.

Punk the Capital will be released through select virtual theatres in the U.S. and Canada on May 14. A wide release is still forthcoming. Find screening details here.
(Sphairos Productions)

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