This is an exhaustive documentary about the Toronto punk scene in the late 1970s. It is nearly 3 and a half hours long -supposedly cut down form 5 hours – which means that it is probably only for people interested in the scene or in the history of Toronto. But if you’re interested in punk or Toronto, it’s well worth your time. (I do wonder if it had been made now, rather than a decade ago, if it could have been turned into a multi part TV special instead.)
This is a fascinating film both because I am interested in the history of music and because I am fascinated by the way in which we Canadians tell our stories. This is such a Canadian film: everyone is at pains to explain how important – and yet how underappreciated! – the Toronto punk scene was. If you know anything about Toronto this is the most Toronto attitude thing ever: this scene was so important – and better than most – but Americans don’t care, ack! So it’s fascinating to hear everyone talk about it.
It’s also fascinating to see the divergent lives: some of these guys are still alcoholic, some of them appear indigent or close to it, and one of them is a successful lawyer. Like any documentary you see about a cultural movement, some “sold out” and some didn’t, though to what degree they had control over that – especially those who are still alcoholics 30+ years later – I don’t know.
There’s lots of footage and photos of Toronto around this time and some good lines about Toronto back then. (I was born after this but I know what these people are talking about Toronto has changed so much since.) There’s also a need CGI map (the CGI isn’t great) showing where all the clubs are.
I do wonder about how right the film is about the scene being a victim of a lack of US and national interest rather than something that wasn’t as special as those involved thought. The film seems to claim that the scene was started off by a 1976 Ramones concert. That doesn’t appear to be entirely true but, if it is, it surely doesn’t make it as significant as New York. Because, of course, The Ramones were from New York and the New York punk scene had been going strong long before they first toured internationally. (Patti Smith’s first album came out in late 1975.)
The other thing that’s odd about the film is its relative lack of focus on the bands that existed before that Ramones show (and a subsequent Talking Heads show). Simply Saucer, who have since been rediscovered and heralded (too late to help their careers) are given some attention. But there’s this other band, Rough Trade (yes, same name as the label), who get only a little bit of attention but seem to have been really important. And the film focuses mostly on the Viletones, Teenage Head and, to a lesser extent, the Diodes and Ugly who all came later. It does feel as though these bands meant more to those involved in the movie (both the filmmakers and the interviewees) rather than those earlier bands. I get that this is natural, but it does feel like a bit of a flaw in the film that it doesn’t make more of a big deal about the Ontario bands that were making punk-like music before the Ramones show.
Still, this is a fascinating watch if you’re interested in punk or Toronto. There’s just so much material and it’s never boring. (Sometimes it’s quite funny. And, for a Torontonian like me, it’s fun to listen to stories about Toronto, most of which I hadn’t heard before.)