Like most things teenage, punk unquestionably had an obsession with death.
From the distance of 40 years, it can be hard to comprehend just how little time it took for punk to change the face of popular music. The story of D.O.A., a landmark of punk cinema that recently made its debut on DVD and Blu-ray, puts this rapid mutation in perspective. Filmed in early 1978, D.O.A. captured a movement barely two years old and already on the verge of collapse. By the time of its premiere another three years later, all of the bands depicted, including stars the Sex Pistols, had broken up; Nancy Spungen and Sid Vicious, whose depressingly strung-out joint interview is the film’s most notorious sequence, were dead; and popular culture had shifted irrevocably.
D.O.A., then, is a time capsule preserving a period that had passed before the film was developed, let alone released. Its nominal subject is the Sex Pistols’ first and final tour of the United States: two weeks of fear and loathing which culminated in the group’s onstage implosion at the Winterland in San Francisco on January 14, 1978. But it’s also a film about the punk movement itself—and thus, by extension, about the end of the 1970s and the end of the 20th century.
Shooting guerrilla-style on handheld 16-millimeter cameras, first-time director Lech Kowalski and his crew capture a handful of bands, fans and detractors—including notorious Thatcher-era cultural crusader Mary Whitehouse—from the eye of the hurricane. D.O.A. is loosely structured by the Pistols’ death march across the American South, but it flits impressionistically back and forth across the Atlantic, capturing the post-apocalyptic bleakness of late 1970s London along with the carnivalesque surrealism of the Bible Belt in that same era. Some of the documentary’s most memorable scenes don’t have much to do with punk at all: the bizarre interview with an Elvis impersonator at Graceland to “pay his respects” for the King’s birthday is a small masterpiece in itself.
Indeed, given the grim mood on the Pistols tour, it’s surprising how fun D.O.A. can be. Many of the interviews with concertgoers aren’t all that distinct in tone from the ones in Jeff Krulik’s Heavy Metal Parking Lot six years later: a refreshing reminder that even in its death spiral, punk’s first wave wasn’t all hard drugs and self-loathing. When the Pistols reach San Francisco, however, things get weirder and more ominous. The fans are angrier and more heavily drugged, the police more aggressive: in one of the film’s most poignant moments, Kowalski speaks to a woman who’s just been thrown out of the venue and onto the concrete by overzealous security. At the famous moment when Johnny Rotten rhetorically asks the Winterland audience if they’ve ever had the feeling they’ve been cheated, the camera is fixed on another woman outside the venue, writhing and masturbating furiously in the street. Its gaze is less prurient than distanced and dismayed.
Balancing out the chaos is a subplot about “Terry and the Idiots,” one of the dozens of otherwise anonymous teenage punk groups that sprang up in England and elsewhere in the wake of the Pistols. Throughout the film, frontman Terry Sylvester holds forth in a series of interviews about clashes with his parents, the hopelessness of working-class life in Britain and the freedom offered by punk before making his untriumphant debut—including a nigh-unrecognizable version of “Anarchy in the U.K.”—to a smirking and heckling pub audience. The sequence where the Idiots “chicken out” and make Terry “look a cunt” plays brilliantly like a low-stakes analogue to the Sex Pistols’ demise; and while D.O.A. climaxes with the Pistols’ onstage implosion in San Francisco (“I’m an abortion,” Rotten smirks at the conclusion of “Bodies”; “What does that make you?”), the last people we actually see are Terry and his mates: strolling across the Ballardian landscape of 1978 London, chastened but undefeated, their next gig and next shag waiting for them on the horizon. Their guileless everypunk existence adds a weirdly optimistic note of social realism to the film.
This sense of youthful innocence may, in fact, be D.O.A.’s most valuable perspective. The three years of punk in its original form were analogous to—and for many participants, synonymous with—adolescence: a motif that shows up again and again in the film. Slouched over the microphone in his carefully distressed menswear, Johnny Rotten looks all of 14; Poly Styrene, the braces-wearing frontwoman of X-Ray Spex, looks even younger. At one point, a camera operator interviews an unidentified 12-year-old girl about her upcoming performance, which involves painting her face white like Linda Blair from The Exorcist and spitting pea soup all over the stage. When Rotten sings the “No future” refrain from “God Save the Queen,” Kowalski intercuts the scene with B-roll footage of grinning and mugging English schoolchildren, many of whom appear no younger than the kids pogoing in the concert shots.
Like most things teenage, punk unquestionably had an obsession with death—of which Sid and Nancy are among its most infamous casualties. But what made it transformative was its equally teenage sense of life and vitality. There’s a sense of hope in the way the spotty, starry-eyed kids waiting in line for the Sex Pistols in this film don’t look so different from any other concert audience, then or now; like adolescence, artists and movements will come and go, but youth culture is a comforting constant. And while the Sex Pistols may have been “D.O.A.” when they washed up on American shores, in their own clumsy way, Terry and the Idiots were forever. Not a bad legacy.