The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Documentary shows off one of the District’s best cultural exports: Punk music

HR of Bad Brains performs at the original Madam's Organ, as seen in the documentary “Punk the Capital: Building a Sound Movement.” (James June Schneider)
Placeholder while article actions load

Countless punk bands have burned bright and fast across the D.C. landscape in the time it has taken the filmmakers of “Punk the Capital: Building a Sound Movement” to put the finishing touches on their music documentary. But fans can breathe easy knowing that it was worth the wait.

For anyone who wasn’t one of the Kickstarter donors who pledged a total $50,121 in 2014 to see the completion of this love letter to the city’s punk scene — begun in earnest more than 15 years ago — the film takes viewers through the story of punk’s birth in the District (Known for short-and-unsweetened paeans to defiance, the punk genre came to flourish in this capital city, becoming one of Washington’s greatest cultural exports.)

Dating from the 1970s, the film’s footage captures the raucous spirit of the communion of limbs (and spittle) that once rattled around cramped houses and makeshift stages. That spirit is one of the hallmarks of Washington’s punk landscape that carries through to today: a D.I.Y. spirit of music-making that exists not because it’s fun or easy, but because doing it under anyone else’s rules would betray your principles.

As Henry Rollins — spoken word artist, former Black Flag frontman and onetime leader of D.C.’s quintet S.O.A. — puts it rhetorically in the film, “Are you really into this, or are you showing up because this was covered in The Washington Post?”

Filmmakers James Schneider, Paul Bishow and Sam Lavine sought to document the rise of punk in Washington not in a holistic manner, but by focusing their lens on the arc of three bands — starting in 1976 with the psych-rockers the Slickee Boys.

Schneider, 48, and Lavine, 35, are District natives, while Bishow, 67, moved to the area from Long Island in 1978. With footage obtained from his Super 8 camera — pointed at what he encountered here — Bishow provides the backbone for “Punk the Capital.”

Among the documentary’s compelling narratives is one centering on the Bad Brains, one of the most electrifying bands the District has ever produced. The archival footage of this quartet of black musicians in a predominantly white community gives a sense of just what a jolt to the system they were. But — as becomes a theme throughout the documentary — bands born in Washington aren’t necessarily destined to stay.

Bad Brains became known for such rowdy shows that they were banned from traditional rock clubs around the city — which gave birth to their essential song collection “Banned in D.C.” The hardcore band, led by singer H.R., became the de facto house band for the original Madam’s Organ art collective and group house. The lure of New York City was too strong, however, and Bad Brains headed north in 1981.

The defining chronicle in “Punk the Capital” concerns Minor Threat, a band known for its righteous musical missives. The quartet’s tale acts as a corrective to the idea that some of these punks never firmly planted their roots. This may seem odd, considering that the band, led by singer Ian MacKaye and drummer Jeff Nelson, only played together three years before calling it quits. Nevertheless, Minor Threat’s song “Straight Edge” — espousing a credo of life lived on your own terms — became the anthem for an enduring movement.

“I grew up in D.C. and got turned onto punk rock on the school bus,” Schneider says, “and the first record I ever bought was Minor Threat. Not just the first punk record, but the first record, period. Music was always local to me. I was part of the skateboard and punk scene, and both combined were kind of a second family to me.”

With the 1980 founding of Dischord Records — a label that became the home for nearly every worthwhile act that picked up a guitar in the DMV for almost four decades — MacKaye and Nelson built the foundation for generations of D.C. bands to come.

Looking back on a history that spans 40-plus years, the filmmakers faced a dilemma when trying to figure out the scope of “Punk the Capital.” (Schneider says an early cut of the documentary ran seven hours.) Even though bands came and went as fast as summer internships, the film’s wide-ranging interviews — along with ephemera from countless concerts, thanks to obsessive collecting — were vast. Those materials now live in the D.C. Library’s punk archive.

Maybe that explains the delay in getting the film out. Or you can chalk it up to the symbiotic spirit of Washington punk: communal listening — and building something together.

“I think what’s been really great to discover through audiences experiencing the film is finding that folks who are really invested in the scene and consider themselves to be very knowledgeable are finding aspects of it that they’re learning from,” Lavine says. “And then folks who are just being exposed to the scene find it engaging and inviting and welcoming.”

Punk the Capital: Building a Sound Movement. At the AFI Silver. Saturday-Monday; showtimes vary. All screenings include Q & As or post screening discussions with special guests. $8-$13.