Punk the Capital challenges the notion of how a punk-rock documentary should look and sound. This isn’t a “good-old-days” documentary deifying the same dead-rebel souls who long ago entered the mainstream cultural pantheon. Instead, it’s a thoughtful reminiscence about a local scene that produced some major players in the genre, sure (Henry Rollins of Black Flag features heavily in this documentary), but also hundreds of smaller acts whose music has gone generally forgotten: the Slickee Boys, White Boy, Bad Brains, Organ Transplants. Punk the Capital looks at the social power of music through the lens of those who experienced a time and place and the impact the scene had on them.
Directors Paul Bishow and James June Schneider set their story in the Washington, D.C. scene from its start in 1976 to around 1983, when the hardcore scene had taken off, punk had reached the suburbs and the group dynamics changed. That time period also saw a shift in American culture as the tenor shifted from late-’70s malaise to the early-’80s Ronald Reagan takeover. D.C. was the epicenter of that change, and those who lived next door to the new man in charge had a lot of feelings about his views on the world — feelings that could be uniquely expressed in the punk clubs that gave them an outlet.
The D.C. scene had its own stars, but it wasn’t where the big guns of punk were slung. New York City was where shit went down. That plays in Punk the Capital‘s favor: D.C.’s comparatively low-key culture leaves dozens of musicians around to talk about the times, including Rollins and Ian MacKaye but also the members of Bad Brains, one of the most distinct bands featured in the documentary. Bad Brains were an all-Black band that championed the idea of Positive Mental Attitude. It’s an idea that permeates the documentary: Punk in D.C. at this time was a community. It wasn’t the bastion of nihilism it’s known to be. Young musicians were able to go out at night to clubs to meet like-minded, equally listless people, make music, have a good time and engage with one another on equal footing. LPs were produced for the sake of having something to share and sell, but major record labels were rarely the impetus.
In fact, one aspect of Punk the Capital that may make it interesting to fans of the genre is its emphasis on the lost material of the D.C. scene at the time. Old footage and recordings helped the filmmakers share music and shows that were never professionally archived. Interviewees wax poetic about forgotten acts and musicians who moved on to other lives without ever keeping a record of their work — great bands lost to time, just like the scene they helped build. The documentary is such a well-meaning and kind ode to a small community that still thrives in the memories and music of its former members.
Unlike many documentaries that try to prove the universal importance of a single moment or movement in time, Punk the Capital is content to focus on the fact that the punk scene in Washington D.C. mattered, however briefly. It meant the world to those who lived through it, and maybe that’s enough. It’s a punk documentary with Positive Mental Attitude that celebrates the good old days while understanding they had their own place in history. Times change. Music disappears. The heart of the movement lives on.