Chainsaw Cheerleader Reviews: SLC Punk (1999)
Directed by: James Mereendino
Written by: James Mereendino
Cast: Matthew Lillard, Michael Goorjian
Genre: independent comedy-drama
“I don’t know who started it and I don’t give a fuck. The one thing I do know is that we did it harder, we did it faster, and we definitely did it with more love, baby. You can’t take that away from us.” -Stevo on whether punk music started in England or America.
When I was an adolescent my parents moved the family from Rhode Island to Livermore Falls, Maine. Leaving the city for some little air biscuit of a town that can barely be found on a map. For those living in Maine you either enter the state by two means: you were born there or you vacationed there at some point. Maine is like a trap set for tourists. Once you vacation there you are more than likely to come back and never leave again. Living in a place that was an hour from a mall and two hours from a city can result in either two things: conform with the high probability of becoming a redneck or rebel and rebel hard. My choice was obvious. In a place where black people made up less than .50% of the population rebellion was only natural. I found that rebellion in music. Punk music.
Punk music bleeds into your soul and adds fuel to the fire that rages in your belly. It stands for something and falls for nothing. At its core it is about being who you truly are and telling people to fuck off if they don’t like it. It is not fashion and it is not a cliché. It is revolution.
Growing up in a small conservative religious town just begs for the opportunity to relate to someone or something. That opportunity came in the form of the movie SLC Punk. I have watched this movie a million times and I will watch it a million times over.
The plot of SLC Punk takes place in Regan era Utah. The film follows the day to day lives of two punks, Stevo and Heroin Bob during the latter half of 1985. After graduating college with honors, Stevo is faced with the decision as to whether he will stay true to his own beliefs or start planning for the future. His father, an ex-hippie and now lawyer, applied for Stevo to Harvard Law School. After being accepted Stevo must choose between not having a future and Harvard Law School. Proclaiming his father to be a sellout, Stevo fights against his future, while doing so with his best friend, Heroin Bob. Bob’s nickname is ironic due to the fact that he hates needles and does not believe in any use of chemicals other then smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol. As the two spend most of their time going to concerts, parties, and fighting with members of other subcultures Stevo begins to feel that the punk scene is turning lame as it is being corrupted by poseurs. While being shaped by their parents and the environment in which they live, the two are going nowhere fast.
SLC Punk is based on the life of the films writer/director, James Mereendino and focuses on his experiences growing up in Salt Lake City, Utah. While SLC Punk is not autobiographical, many of the characters in the film are based on real people that Mereendino knew. Many of the events that take place during the film are true but they have been exaggerated to help further the message of the movie. The character of Stevo is based on Mereendino but he is named after Stephen Egerton, who played in the Salt Lake City punk band Massacre Guys. Egerton would later go on to join the Descendants.
The major question that SLC Punk raises is how do we grow up without selling out? How does one stay hardcore and still have hope for the future? In the end, regardless of one’s lifestyle, we all need to find away to feed ourselves, cloth ourselves, and afford shelter. For the majority of societies the only way to achieve this is to earn money. Earning money means getting a job and getting a job means following someone else’s rules. In the end we are all sellouts. We compromise our beliefs a little each day in order to live. The greatest example of this is the parents of Stevo. Like most children born in the 70’s and 80’s we had the major chance of our parents being hippies. The hippies started a movement based on love, peace, and freedom. Now they are older and the vast majority have compromised everything they stood for. They are now their parents. The exact thing they rebelled against in the first place.
For Stevo, his once hippie father wants him to attend Harvard Law School just as he did. Seeing his son’s rebellion as a phase, he tries to convince him he is not selling out to the system but buying in. This can best be explained by the following dialog:
Stevo: Wait, time out. I just wanted to ask real quick, if I can. You believe in rebellion, freedom and love, right?
Mom: Absolutely, yes.
Dad: Rebellion, freedom, love.
Stevo: You two are divorced. So love failed. Two: Mom, you’re a New Ager, clinging to every scrap of Eastern religion that may justify why the above said love failed. Three: Dad, you’re a slick, corporate, preppy-ass lawyer. I don’t really have to say anything else about you do I, dad? Four: You move from New York City, the Mecca and hub of the cultural world to Utah! Nowhere! To change nothing! More to perpetuate this cycle of greed, fascism and triviality. Your movement of the people, by and for the people got you… nothing! You just hide behind some lost sense of drugs, sex and rock and roll. Ooooh, Kumbaya! I am the future! I am the future of this great nation which you, father, so arrogantly saved this world for. Look, I have my own agenda. Harvard, out. University of Utah, in. I’m gonna get a 4.0 in damage. I love you guys! Don’t get me wrong, it’s all about this. But for the first time in my life, I’m 18 and I can say “FUUUUUCK YOU!”
Dad: Steven, I didn’t sell out son. I bought in. Keep that in mind. That kid’s gonna make a hell of a lawyer, huh?
Mom: Yeah, he takes after his father. He’s a son of a bitch.
Dad: Well fuck you dear.
A major highlight of SLC Punk is the dialog. It is not only filled with quotable lines but nothing is added for the sake of being funny or outrageous. Every word is spoken from the heart. Here are a few example of this:
Stevo: Posers were people who looked like punks but they did it for fashion. And they were fools, they’d say “Anarchy in the UK.” What the fuck’s that? Anarchy in the UK. What good is that to those of us in Utah, America? It was a Sex Pistols thing. They were British, they were allowed to go on about Anarchy in the UK. You don’t live your life by lyrics.
Stevo: You see life is like that. We change, that’s all. You see, the guy I am now is not the guy I was then. If the guy I was then met the guy I am now he’d beat the shit out of me. Those are the facts.
Stevo: To be an anarchist in Salt Lake City was certainly no easy task, especially in 1985. And having no money, no job, no plans for the future, the true anarchist position was in itself a strenuous job.
Stevo: I rest my case on this: In a country of lost souls rebellion comes hard. But in a religiously oppressive city, where half its population isn’t even of that religion, it comes like fire.
Stevo: The Fight: What does it mean and where does it come from? An Essay: Homosapien. A man. He is alone in the universe. A punker. Still a man. He is alone in the universe, but he connects. How? They hit each other. No clearer way to evaluate whether or not you’re alive. Now. Complications. A reason to fight. Somebody different. Difference creates dispute. Dispute is a reason to fight. Now, to fight is a reason to feel pain. Life is pain. So to fight with reason is to be alive with reason. Final analysis: To fight, a reason to live. Problems and Contradictions: I am an anarchist. I believe that there should be no rules, only chaos. Fighting appears to be chaos. And when we slam in the pit a show it is. But when we fight for a reason, like rednecks, there’s a system, we fight for what we stand for, chaos. Fighting is a structure, fighting is to establish power, power is government and government is not anarchy. Government is war and war is fighting. The circle goes like this: our redneck skirmishes are cheap perversions of conventional warfare. War implies extreme government because wars are fought to enforce rules or ideals, even freedom. But other people ideals forced on someone else, even if it is something like freedom, is still a rule; not anarchy. This contradiction was becoming clear to me in the fall of ’85. Even as early as my first party, “Why did I love to fight?” I framed it, but still, I don’t understand it. It goes against my beliefs as a true anarchist. But there it was. Competition, fighting, capitalism, government, THE SYSTEM. That’s what we did. It’s what we always did. Rednecks kicked the shit out of punks, punks kicked the shit out of mods, mods kicked the shit out of skinheads, skinheads took out the heavy metal guys, and the heavy metal guys beat the living shit out of new wavers and the new wavers did nothing. What was the point? Final summation? None.
One important aspect that is used to help explain the social order of the cliques that are represented in the film comes in the form of a long monologue by Stevo (written about in the above paragraph). Each different group is referred to as a “tribe”. The Tribes are explained and placed in the order of who fights with who. SLC Punk focuses mainly on the punk tribe but goes into detail about the tribes known as the Mods, Rednecks, Nazis, Heavy Metal Guys, and New Wavers. Talking about these different groups help explain how the punk tribe is different and why the things that separate them from the other tribes help make them who they are. Having an understanding of who they are as part of the punk tribe helps them realize what they stand for and who to take their aggression out on. This also helps support why punk music is so important for those of the punk tribe. Understanding the concept of the tribe helps give insight into Stevo and Bob.
SLC Punk has received criticism from some viewers. The major issue that is often discussed is that Matthew Lillard plays Stevo. It is these viewers who have claimed that SLC Punk is a poseur in the punk film genre because Lillard plays the main character. With such complaints, one begins to feel that these are the same people who argue that someone isn’t punk enough if they do not dress the part. To me, these people are like the cool kids in high school, they dismiss you because you do not look them. Judging simply by looks is more poseur then having Lillard in the film. After all punk is about the music and not about fashion. To dismiss people who like and/or believe in the same movement as they do is acting like the very thing that they have rebelled against. There is no reason to question the legitimacy of SLC Punk due to the fact that Lillard is part of the cast. He is an actor. Had he been an actual member of the punk movement or an individual who played in a punk band, this doubt may have seemed more rational.
Lillard’s performance outshines the normal teen movies he has acted in. It is also sad. Lillard’s acting in SLC Punk is fun and energetic. He lays bare all the emotions of his character easily and with such high energy. Some may see this as campy but he does so with such sincerity that he completes the character without making him look like a fool. A high light of his acting is the narration he gives throughout the film. The narration enables the viewer to be able to look deeper into the character. The film can easily be described as chaotic but with Lillard’s narration, he pulls the entire movie together and gives it some order. The reason why this is sad is that Lillard’s acting is fantastic. SLC Punk shows the viewer that Lillard can act but he is often given roles that do not require skilled acting. Lillard’s films are often movies for tweens or teens. Lillard maybe better known for acting in the Scooby-Doo franchise, Scream, and National Lampoon styled movies. These types of films maybe all that Lillard is offered and that is sad because he can clearly do more then what is asked of him.
Every great movie about punk music and the life style must have an even greater soundtrack. SLC Punk features the standards of punk music, the bands that everyone knows and loves. The Stooges, The Ramones, and Dead Kennedys are by far the most recognizable bands played throughout the movie. Other bands such a Minor Threat, The Exploited, Generation X, The Specials, and The Adolescents are given a chance to shine. The placement of each song throughout the movie is placed during scenes that work with the lyrics. The song entitled “Gangster” by The Specials is about police officers and their abuse of power. As “Gangster” begins to play Stevo and Bob try to buy beer as a cop calls for assistants because he believes there is going to be trouble. The duo then begin to fight with the police that are deemed rednecks. The song “She Loved like Diamond” by Spandau Ballet is a song about the death of the subject of the song. “She Loved like Diamond” plays during a scene where a New Waver gives Bob “aspirin”. It is this song that alludes to a very important scene that takes place toward the end of the film. Yes, Spandau Ballet is not punk but they are a New Wave band. It is important to remember that when the New Wave band plays it is a New Waver that gives Bob the “aspirin.” The music throughout SLC Punk is dedicated to telling the story of Stevo and Bob. For many people, music is life and by using songs to help tell a story, SLC Punk only furthers this opinion.
SLC Punk neatly bring to a close not only the end of the film but that of Stevo’s punk lifestyle with the death of his best friend, Bob. For Stevo, Bob was more than a friend, he was his accomplice, his partner in crime. In the film Bob is the one who introduced Stevo to punk music and together they came to believe in anarchy. Bob was the reason that Stevo now lived as he lived and thought as he thought.
Bob’s death is ironic. Being anti-chemicals, was part of Bob’s major belief system. After having a severe headache, Bob for the first time since becoming a punk, asks for aspirin. He is given Percodan (which is a combination of aspirin and oxycodone), instead. After taking the drug while intoxicated with alcohol, Bob dies of an accidental drug overdose in his sleep. It isn’t until morning when Stevo enters where Bob sleeps, tries to wake him, and realizes his best friend is dead. Stevo quickly falls apart.
There are not many movies that make me cry but SLC Punk is one of those very few. Even after having seen the movie many times, it is when Stevo realizes that Bob is dead, questions his death, and then cries out, “Only posers die you fucking idiot!” that I cry. It is always that scene that punches me in the gut every time.
The true testament of any film is would the viewer watch the same movie over again and would the same emotions stirred by certain scenes be felt again with another viewing. SLC Punk accomplishes this and it does so effortlessly. I do question though if I am bias do to the fact that I am a rabid fan of punk music. SLC Punk is highly relatable for me but if someone related more to country music or rap music would they feel the same way as I do? I am unsure but the underlying message of SLC Punk is not completely about the music but about rebellion and trying desperately to hold onto your own beliefs as you grow older and try to find your place in the world. Regardless of any style of music, this is a universal message.
SLC Punk is about rebellion but it is also about growing up. Not everyone may like punk music or like the message it may bring across but everyone, regardless of the music they like, has questioned everything around them. This movie is for the poseurs and the non-poseurs. It is for every kids who has grown up and realized just how fucked up their society really is.
SLC Punk receives a 8 1/2 out of 10
Disclaimer: The SLC Punk trailer does not do the film justice. The film is indeed fun but more serious then the trailer leads the viewer to believe.