Furious front women, terrifying girl gangs and a film that pissed off Dame Vivienne – these are the riotous movie classics you need to see
Punk was never a gender-bound movement. Propelled by a riotous sense of freedom and rebellion, it offered women the chance to break free from the constraints of conformity; and marked a major cultural moment for oppressed outsiders everywhere. Now, to celebrate its 40-year anniversary, one of punk’s principal spearheads Don Letts has announced an excellent programme of films centred on the movement. In anticipation of its premiere at the British Film Institute this summer, we round up some of the season’s biggest female-focused features.
FASTER PUSSYCAT… KILL! KILL! (1965, DIR. RUSS MEYER)
Russ Meyer carved his reputation into sexploitation with an ample selection of blue movies, but in women of Faster Pussycat… Kill! Kill! he found something else. Rounded, raucous characters whose emasculating tendencies led to murder and sadism emulated punk glamour while keeping punters happy. A favourite of John Waters, the cultural impact of these ruthless buxom killers has spanned decades; from The Cramps’ loyal cover of the film’s title theme to its obvious influence on Tarantino’s Death Proof. Varla, the lead character, is a forebearer of punk. Shrouded in black, unsmiling with pencil-drawn eyebrows, she violently dismisses patriarchal values and does as she damn pleases, using her power and sexuality to best her enemies. Dismissed far too readily upon its release as a misogynistic atrocity, Faster Pussycat… Kill! Kill! is a fascinating first example of women on top that has caused ripples through cinema since.
A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT (2014, DIR. ANA LILY AMIRPOUR)
There’s nothing immediate about the chaos caused by Sheila Vand’s skateboarding protagonist in this Iranian vampire movie, but this is no reason not to fear her. Almost docile in demeanour, she tears a path of destruction through the shady underbelly of her neighbourhood. Using her curse to rebel against the confines of masculinity, Ana Lily Amirpour has created an unlikely nocturnal antihero; dividing her time between the crime-riddled streets of urban Iran and the poster-laden walls of her windowless bedroom. A former DJ, Amirpour expertly applies music to A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night’s journey, giving her almost silent lead character a voice through her records as well as her violent tendencies.
THE PUNK SINGER (2013, DIR. SINI ANDERSON)
“All girls to the front! I’m not kidding. All boys be cool for once in your lives.” Never was there ever a poster girl for punk like Kathleen Hanna. Sini Anderson’s warm, eloquent documentary on the Bikini Kill/Le Tigre/The Julie Ruin frontwoman maps the riot grrrl movement through the words and actions of not only Hanna but her enviable gang of allies: including Kim Gordon, Carrie Brownstein and Joan Jett. Starting with the formation of Bikini Kill and ending with The Julie Ruin via a heartbreaking detour of illness and frustration, The Punk Singer is essential viewing on an essential chapter of contemporary feminism.
JUBILEE (1978, DIR. DEREK JARMAN)
Derek Jarman’s twisted post-apocalyptic nightmare sees fashion, sex and satire clash in a dystopian London, the streets of which are ruled by an army of terrifying girl gangs. A bizarre narrative in which the Queen is transported 400 years into the future to view what the country will become lets Jarman channel fury and mayhem through his female protagonists. It’s a glorious and gorgeously shot piece of punk history, with a joyous list of cameos including Adam Ant, Toyah Willcox and Brian Eno (with his first film score). Its release garnered mixed reactions (Vivienne Westwood notoriously printed an open letter to Jarman on a t-shirt stating how much she despised the film), but the director remained unperturbed, relishing the tribal-like fierceness of his women at a time when chaos ruled.
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE FABULOUS STAINS (1982, DIR. LOU ADLER)
A commercial and critical flop, Lou Adler’s second and final stint as a director was carried to cult success thanks to indie film fanatics with an appreciation for its honest depiction of a music industry trying to tame punk music for financial gain. Starring 15-year-old Diane Lane as a misguided and furious front woman and her band’s breakneck journey to fame and back again, the film found fans in Riot Grrrl pioneers Bikini Kill, Courtney Love and L7, and maintained a small but loyal audience despite Paramount Pictures’ attempts to shelve it.
SMITHEREENS (1982, DIR. SUSAN SEIDELMAN)
“Obnoxious to the point of fascination” is a popular opinion held of Susan Berman’s spiky narcissist in Smithereens. Fleeing New Jersey for New York’s flailing punk scene, Wren’s self-centred pursuit of fame is weirdly admirable; stepping over people to get ahead and manipulating those in power for personal gain. Scrappy, tiny and swathed in pink fur, Wren is more of a sign of the times than punk personified. Set during the New York’s bankruptcy crisis of the 1970s, Seidelman drew on her own experiences and the characters in her neighbourhood to capture Wren’s gritty East Village existence, the result being a stylised depiction of the ruthlessness of her city.
PUSSY RIOT: A PUNK PRAYER (2013, DIR. MIKE LERNER)
There have been few movements over the past decade that have touched celebrity, fashion and music culture quite as dramatically as Pussy Riot. Causing a Kardashian-esque media wave with supporters including Peaches, Yoko Ono and Madonna, the trio of Russian punk performers made headlines by taking their protest to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow and consequently being arrested. Mike Lerner’s documentary requires little context; such is the public’s fascination with his subjects and their undeniable swagger that pointing and shooting would have sufficed. Instead, through talking heads and shaky footage, we’re presented with a shining account of a country that had never really experienced punk before.
Don Letts’ Punk on Film season will be shown at the BFI Southbank throughout August 2016