❉ DOA has existed in a pirate-video limbo for several decades now, and to finally see it cleaned up on Blu-Ray is a wonderful thing, writes Daniel Marner.
“Is it FUNNY watching an appallingly heroin-sick, near-comatose Sid Vicious repeatedly nod off, a pathetic victim of rock n’ roll clichés? Well, yeah it is, in ways Abigail’s Party or Spinal Tap could only dream of being. Is it also sad, disturbing, pathetic? Yes it is, wholeheartedly.”
“I got you in my camera and I got you in my camera/ A second of your life, ruined for life”
– I Wanna Be Me, The Sex Pistols
“I been hurtin’ since I bought the gimmick”
– Lust For Life, Iggy Pop
It begins with a baptism.
As abstract sounds echo and seethe a Catholic Christening takes place, witnessed from a balcony. Intercut with this we see chewed, chipped fingernails select a 7-inch disc from a pile of records, place it on a turntable, press play. At the moment the holy water touches the infant’s head the needle hits the groove and we hear her sob, softly. The sobs are crackling and hissing from the record itself: a holy covenant has been made, a mystical transference. She belongs to rock n ‘roll now. We’re witnessing the start of something, the start of meaning and reality for somebody. Or more accurately, the start of meaning and reality for a whole lot of nobodies.
Nightclubbing. We’re nightclubbing. Harsh light sweeps a backstage area, and we see a strange assortment of animals caught in the headlamps, grinning and throwing shapes in front of graffitied concrete walls. Kids looking defiant and belligerent in angular make-up, ripped-t-shirts, cheap plastic shades. One of them starts to talk: Candy, her name’s Candy: she’s a bass player from LA and she’s here in Atalanta to see The Pistols and make the scene.
We’re here to see The Pistols and make the scene too, through the grimy, smeared lens of documentarian Lech Kowalski. As Johnny, Sid, Steve and Paul launch into Anarchy In the USA (very polite of John to tailor his lyrics for his crowd) we cut to a range of reactions: they’re ‘Outta sight! I think they got a lotta balls!” They’re “Garbage man, fuckin’ garbage!” They’re “Better than homework”, “So beautiful I could vomit”, they “Can’t sing worth a shit!”
Kowalski named his film D.O.A. after his favourite film noir, the one where the guy has to solve his own murder before the fatal poison in his system kills him. Fatalism runs through this film like rot through a tooth, and fatal are the consequences for two of its featured stars. What starts with baptism ends with death, and brutal, meaningless, wasteful death at that. Dead On Arrival could refer to Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, stabbed to death (her) and overdosed (him) while barely old enough to be thought of as adults. Or it could be The Sex Pistols themselves, Dead On Arrival in the USA, their legendary status already assured even as the pungent reality of their impending acrimonious break-up haunts every bum bass note and thousand-yard stare from the stage. Or is it punk rock itself that’s Dead On Arrival, a cultural blowtorch that sputtered and ran dry of fuel just as it was starting to do some real damage?
Funded by Tom Forcade of High Times Magazine (only completed after his suicide: the film bears a dedication to him at the end) and intended to be a document of the punk scene at its zenith, DOA was finally released to fairly widespread indifference in 1981, 3 years after most of it was shot, and too long after the disintegration of the scene to matter. As far as the mainstream was concerned the punk flame was out. There were new fads and fashions to exploit. The Sex Pistols hadn’t survived beyond one album, and through some sort of rotten, defeated alchemy they’d taken the scene down with them.
But hindsight is the best kind of curse, and 40 years on from The Sex Pistols’ glum, angrily frustrated implosion on a gob-strewn stage in San Francisco we now see what a gift DOA really is. Without Kowalski’s 16mm cameras there’d be hardly any visual documentation of the Sex Pistols’ first (and last) tour of The States, and gripping, unforgettable footage it is: wave after wave of spiky-haired youth turning on a dime from courtesy to aggression under the interrogating light of Kowalski’s sun-gun as they wait to see, or emerge from a gig: Johnny Rotten doing his best Richard III moves under a barrage of flying glass, mucous and ill-will. At one point in San Antonio he taunts the crowd with “I see we’ve got a lot of REAL MEN out here tonight…” and the antagonism results in him ending up with a crown of hurled coleslaw, landing on him at the end of an enraged, cynical hurtle through New York as Sid tries to brain an angry local with his bass. Like all the best moments of their career it’s simultaneously hilarious, tragic, scary and pathetic, their bearded attacker showboating for the news cameras (“They KNEW…I was there to cause them PHYSICAL HARM!”) while Sid comes off looking like the wrong sort of punk altogether.
The impressive, slipshod live footage of The Pistols mid-implosion (when were they NOT mid-implosion though?) is DOA’s big hook, and it’s cleverly deployed throughout the film: we never get an interview with Rotten, Jones or McLaren (we DO get Cook petulantly informing us that he thinks America is a ‘load of shit’) and this keeps their grubby mystique intact. The film’s OTHER big hook is contained in the notorious scenes where an appallingly heroin-sick, near-comatose Sid Vicious and the shrill, rubber-clad, wannabe-provocative love of his life Nancy Spungen lounge in a black bedroom on black bedsheets, trying and disastrously failing to give an interview to the film’s co-director Chris Salewicz. Sid keeps falling unconscious, his head lolling onto his bright red swastika T-shirt mid-sentence as Nancy berates him and tries to wake him with an inhaler, cigarettes and an offer of ‘Cawfee’.
Once again, we are exposed to an uncomfortable, indefinable mood. Is it FUNNY watching this young man repeatedly nod off, less a threat to the status quo than a pathetic victim of rock n’ roll clichés? Well, yeah it is. It’s awkward and hilarious in ways the cringe-comedy of Abigail’s Party or Spinal Tap could only dream of being. Is it also sad, disturbing, pathetic? Yes it is, whole-heartedly. We’re watching two young people (21 and 20 years old) with barely a year to live ahead of them, and one of them will meet a violent end at the hands of the other. Neither of them will ever clean up or grow up, nor will they ever get a chance to recognise or atone for their mistakes. Their mistakes, their naivety, their trivial, youthful piece-of-shit transgressions will live on celluloid forever, to inspire generations of silly little idiots to come. The Sid and Nancy non-interview is both unwatchable and compelling at the same time, and perhaps one of the greatest examples of what the art of the documentary is capable of. This is a real moment caught in all its tawdriness and pain for the world to witness and play over and over again for potentially the rest of human time.
“There’s an urban legend that the notorious ‘Terry and the Idiots’ (for it is they) who we see stumble nervously and shambolically through a half-attempted Anarchy In The UK in a London pub before splitting up on stage (just like the Pistols!) were a scam, yet no sitcom writer could have devised Terry.”
DOA came at the tail-end of a slew of ‘punkumentaries’ like Don Letts’ rough-hewn, super-8 fly-on-the-wall document The Punk Rock Movie (less a film than a performance record for posterity) and Wolfgang Buld’s witty, accomplished Punk In London (a quizzical but excited German outsider’s view of the scene) and shares with them a lot of punk cinema’s downbeat iconography: the ripped-and-torn fashion aesthetic, the lowbrow high-jinks, the desolate English landscapes of tower block and waste ground. Everything in these films seems to happen on a permanent, freezing, grey afternoon, where wind whips across the concrete overpasses and rusty railings and there’s no warmth or shelter to be found anywhere, except in the dimly-lit pubs where people seem to bounce and grapple one another for warmth as much as entertainment.
This brings us to the film’s other, equally significant strand: an attempt to reach the heartland of punk, to find out what it means to the kids who follow it and why. We alight on one Terry Sylvester, a slab-faced, crinkly-eyed tower block urchin who articulates much of the era’s desolate mantra of no job/money/future and claims he’s formed a band in answer to the trying times. There’s an urban legend that the notorious ‘Terry and the Idiots’ (for it is they) who we see stumble nervously and shambolically through a half-attempted Anarchy In The UK in a London pub before splitting up on stage (just like the Pistols!) were a scam, devised by Terry to get a bit of exposure and a bit of cash out of the gullible Yank film director looking for urban authenticity. Again no sitcom writer could have devised Terry: his inauthenticity as a rock star is somehow more of an authentic comment on the frustration and cynicism of teenagers in the late 70s than it would have been if he’d been as charismatic, stylish and poetic as Rotten: or even as blisteringly sincere and awkward as Sham 69’s Jimmy Pursey (who we see almost break down on stage trying to quell racially motivated violence at his own gig in Camden’s cavernous Roundhouse).
The footage of kids jumping around the streets of London, play-fighting and playing up for the cameras is genuinely fun to watch, and its wintry, bleached-out 16mm grimness has an almost warm, Ready-Brek glow of nostalgia to it, ironically enough. The scene of a teenage Jack Wild lookalike stringing a rope over a rickety wooden climbing frame to make an improvised swing while the Sex Pistols’ howl through their minimalist, angrily despairing take on The Stooges’ No Fun approaches something like genuine cinematic poetry: A young mixed-race boy’s pissed-off rant about his job and the boredom of his (non-)existence in a country where the telly goes off at midnight and the internet is the stuff of a madman’s wildest dream is stunning in its directness and searing rage.
Contrasted against the kids and the noise they’re making (excellent performance footage of X-ray Spex, Generation X, the aforementioned Sham 69 and a slew of American punks, including The Dead Boys, pad out the film’s running time nicely) we have the voices of authority, and it’s these hysterical, almost surreally hateful and doom-laden interview snippets that really make DOA unmissable. Everyone’s least-favourite reactionary auntie Mary Whitehouse literally asking us to think of the children: living Monty Python bureaucrat-caricature Bernard Brooke-Partridge having a whale of a time laying into the Pistols and their ilk, almost shaking with rage and excitement as he dares to say the word ‘crap’ to an American film crew: and weirdest of all droning, heavy-lidded Jonathan Guinness (then-heir to the Guinness fortune) alluding to and perhaps inspiring the film’s sub-title ‘A Right (sic) of Passage’ by suggesting that maybe we need another war or something to thin out the rank and file, because there is no longer ‘un rite de passage between man and boy’.
Release-wise, DOA has existed in a pirate-video bootleg-and-taped-off-Channel-4 limbo for several decades now, and to finally see it remastered and tidied up on Blu-Ray is a wonderful thing. The image is clearer and brighter than ever before. It still isn’t THAT bright or clear to be honest (we’re talking cheap 16mm filmed on even cheaper, and often broken cameras) but it shows in tiny details that weren’t noticeable before: the angry flash of white in a young punk girl’s eyes on the Kings Road, the scrawl of graffiti on a wall being suddenly decipherable. The re-release is not without its casualties though, and these de-merits are largely to do with changes in music licensing: decades before Trainspotting, Kowalski and his editor Val Kuklowsky utilised the Iggy Pop recordings Nightclubbing and Lust For Life (wonder if this film is a favourite of Danny Boyle?) to underpin the decadence and excitement of the scene. Here they’ve been swapped out for vastly inferior live versions of the same songs, and the effect is painful if you’re familiar with the original film: the polish and eeriness of the ‘Bewlay Brothers’ productions added just the right level of remove from the squalid backstage rooms and sticky stage-floors we’re being shown. Here no such remove exists and it dissipates some of the film’s noir-ish tension (I guess Bowie’s estate aren’t playing nice any more.) The film’s end credits (Terry and The Idiots strolling on a concrete bridge silhouetted against a council estate skyline) used to be accompanied by the delicate, desolate, chiming dub of Augustus Pablo’s AP Special: this has been swapped out for a generic reggae instrumental that may as well be titled ‘Generic Reggae Instrumental’).
But these are small quibbles really. That this film survives and exists on Blu-Ray is a fine testament to its odd, cynical, downbeat power. The disc is bulked up with two very worthwhile contemporary supplementary documentaries: one is an extended interview with Chris Salewicz, and the other (almost as long as DOA itself) is an extensive, very detailed history of the film’s making and release, featuring interviews with co-producer and title designer John Holmstrom, cameramen Rufus Standifer and David King, researcher Mary Killen (well-known to those who watch Gogglebox, and whose purloined credit card was responsible for completing the film’s production budget), iconic punk photographer Roberta Bayley, and ex-Rich Kid Midge Ure, who seems surprised to be told that he’s actually in the film at all.
Most impressive of all is the presence of American ex-punk scenester Lamar St. John: she’s the one who’s memorably shown in the film ranting tearfully as she sprawls on the ground outside a particularly brutal Pistols show in Texas after being beaten up by a bouncer (the image that inspired the film’s cartoonish poster). It’s kind of magical to see her have a life outside of those two minutes of screen time from 1978.
Significant by his absence is Lech Kowalski himself: maybe he’s unhappy with the hobbled state of the Blu-Ray soundtrack, maybe (judging by some of the anecdotes that are told) he’s not a popular guy amongst those involved with the film. Punk rock has never been renowned as a haven of nice guys, so maybe it’s fitting that the director of one its best documentaries is remembered by some as kind of a prick too.
❉ ‘D.O.A.: A Right of Passage’ Dual Format was released by Second Sight, September 2018. Cat.No.: 2NDBR4083 RRP: £24.99. Cert: 15 Running Time: 121 mins.