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Punk Slash! Musicals

about the writer

Mike Mosher is Professor of Art/Communiciation & Digital Media at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan. He is a frequent contributor to online publications Leonardo Reviews and Bad Subjects.

Cracked Lip Service: Punk Musicals and Slip-Sync
By Mike Mosher

David Laderman, Punk Slash! Musicals: Tracking Slip-Sync on Film (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

This lively book examines British and American Punk — a term as worthy of capitalization as Imagist, Surrealist or Situationist — rock musicals from about 1978 to 1986. Author David Laderman makes much of the trope he callls slip-sync: either careless or intentionally discordant lip-synching that can suggest Punk's DIY sloppiness, don't-give-a-damn insouciance, postmodern irony, or a specific constellation of all three.

As Punk sprang from the edges of rock, punk film emerged from movie making at the edges of the mainstream. Michigan's proto-Punk band the MC5 provided a song for Gold, Bob Levis' 1968 hippie movie. Hollywood Boulevard (1976), co-directed by Alan Arkush and Joe Dante, featured Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen, who shared Michigan stages with early Punk rockers the Stooges and the MC5. Return to Waterloo (1985), a musical film by Ray Davies (of the 1960s hitmakers the Kinks), lightly interfaces the Punk ethos, as Tim Roth appears as one of three violent Punks menacing commuters on a train. The films Laderman examines are a renewal of the slapdash fun of rock 'n' roll films on the edge.

Slip-sync had its antecedents in the Hollywood musical (especially Singin' in the Rain, on the dilemmas of early sound films), Beatles movies, and rock musicals. Often the absurdity of the music — orchestra welling up as Maria sang on the mountain — created a surreal setting for the vocals, even if the words and lips synchronized. Authenticity was a virtue to the Woodstock generation a decade older than the Punks, and musically it was often demonstrated in "aliveness" and live albums recorded in performance, even as many of the bands praised for their authenticity were playing arenas that distanced them from the crowd. Punk returned to early rock's raw sound, sometimes willfully ugly, best heard in tiny pubs and sweaty basement clubs.

Two 1970s films that kick off the slip-sync wave are The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975; Jim Sharman), with large female lips approximately synched with a male voice, and The Blank Generation (1976; Amos Poe and Ivan Kral), where Punk songs accompany footage of the bands taken at entirely different moments from the sound recordings, synched only accidentally and rarely. Derek Jarman's Jubilee (1978), shot in both 16mm and Super 8, offers a soundtrack as inventive as its image track. Characters perform songs with inexplicable stoppage and stasis of their lips, sing along with television performances, and watch allegedly live performances with odd synchronization, all contributing to a jagged, burlesque, but politicized ambience in the film. Punk icon Jordan, distracted by an off-screen military aircraft, slips out of synch during a performance of "Rule, Brittania," only to walk offstage, close-mouthed, before her song ends, while her voice sings on.

Laderman cites moments of slip-sync in Julian Temple's The Great Rock n' Roll Swindle (1980) that are racialized (the Black Arabs performing the Sex Pistols' "Pretty Vacant") or simply mysterious: why do we hear the single version of "God Save the Queen" during supposedly live footage of the Pistols' performance on a Thames River excursion boat? Sometimes slip-sync is the hallmark of a mock-performance, as in Swindle where Sid Vicious sings "C'mon Everybody" while motorcycling, or "My Way" in Paris (a scene reconstructed in Alex Cox's Sid and Nancy [1986]). The closing song, "It's a Swindle," is recorded after the band has broken up, with various singers who've answered an ad, some of them wearing masks of departed singer Johnny Rotten, whose voice is heard on the soundtrack. "In a variety of ways," writes Laderman, "punk slip-sync in these films deconstructs the performing body by representing it as both fusing with and refusing mass-media technology and celebrity-culture commercialism."

Sometimes slip-sync grows out of rock musicals' low-budget history of inaccurate synchronization, celebrated in the silly scenes in Rock 'n' Roll High School (1979; Alan Arkush) of the Ramones playing their instruments unplugged in the bed of a truck, the halls of a high school, or a teenage girl fan's bedroom. In Breaking Glass (1980), Hazel O'Connor's songs slip in and out of synch when sung on a train and on stage, highlighting how manipulated and even machine-like a female performer can (or must) be.

Though Laderman, surprisingly, doesn't cite Bertolt Brecht, slip-sync is reminiscent of the critical distance created in some of Brecht's plays when actors address the audience, or demonstrate awareness of it, in violation of the "fourth wall" of the stage. In the moment of Punk musicals' slip-sync, the performer is implicitly saying, "Hey, it's only a movie."

Laderman sets up one debatable thesis in the opening of his book when he claims slip-sync conveys Punk's "anxiety regarding new electronic technologies of simulation as well as music-industry submission to intensified visualization." Yet this reviewer remembers Punk having no trouble embracing communications technology, from Polaroid snapshots and Super 8 video to early Sony Portapak video (used by Bob Gruen to document the New York Dolls). If anything, Punks were always onstage, dressed up for the camera, with the dandy's aesthetic of daily life as art and art as daily life; and they were ready to use any tools available to document themselves.

Slip-sync is not dead. The singer-songwriter Beck, whose first hit, "Loser," was Punk in spirit, uses the trope in the video accompanying his 2006 song "Strange Apparition." Well into it, the music to which Beck and his bandmates are miming inexplicably halts during the filming, leaving a moment of embarrassed silence. Two young women in ballet costumes leap from the men's laps where they had been sitting, as if they were responsible for fixing the music. All laugh sheepishly, then the music picks up where it left off, and the women resume their seats, until a cut to the next scene.

David Laderman is Professor of Film at the College of San Mateo, halfway between San Francisco (twenty minutes to the north) and Silicon Valley. San Francisco had its own vibrant Punk scene in the 1970s and early '80s, with the Dead Kennedys, Mutants, Crime, Flipper, and a Maoist band called Prairie Fire. Laderman might have cited, if only briefly, S.F. Punk's interface with its local film underground. Bruce Conner filmed the Mutants, one of many bands that emerged from the San Francisco Art Institute (home of the Cinematheque), where he taught. Joe Rees' small company Target Video videotaped many Punk bands' performances, some of which are available on DVD.

Finally, I confess to a personal interest in this author, as nearly twenty years ago I taught as a once-a-week adjunct at the College of San Mateo. One day, as I came in for my desktop publishing class (to which I added rudimentary animation with Macintosh Hypercard), I found a carton of books in a box labelled FREE outside the Humanities Dean's office. These were all books on film — by Vivian Sobchak, P. Adams Sitney, and others — for the subject hadn't been taught there for years, and the Dean's secretary needed the shelf space. They became a sizable chunk of my own Film Studies library, to which I add Laderman's book. It's nice to see this suburban college now has a film scholar teaching there, and one who's staked out an overlooked genre and made this readable and welcome contribution to the literature.

Mike Mosher
© FIPRESCI 2011

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bullet. # 5 (5.2009)
bullet. # 4 (10.2008)
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issue #7 (1.2011)


Contents

bullet. Blake Edwards
bullet. Pierre Léon
bullet. Film School
bullet. Takamine Hideko
bullet. Serbis
bullet. The Time That Remains
bullet. Viennale 2010
bullet. Punk Slash! Musicals