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 ). 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.