Two terrific punk-schlock movies from B-movie producer Roger Corman have just been released on the home-video label Shout! Factory. One is the Ramones classic “Rock ‘n’ RollHigh School,” a midnight-movie favorite released in 1979. But the other, Penelope Spheeris’ “Suburbia,” from 1980, is a lesser-known gem even among punk fans. Both have been largely unavailable on home-video in recent years.
The Ramones movie offers a quick lesson in cultural co-optation: When the band released its first album in 1976 they seemed frighteningly loud and fast, possibly even violent. By 1979, though, they were tame enough to star in a whimsical teen-flick alongside C-listers like P.J. Soles (“Halloween”), Mary Woronov (a Corman favorite), Clint Howard (brother of Ron) and Vince Van Patten. The movie is a lark, but it’s also a chance to see one of the earliest Ramones line-ups on film. Out of the four band members, only drummer Marky is still alive.
“Suburbia” is a whole different animal – gritty, clear-eyed and entirely believable despite the wooden acting (most roles are played by non-professionals). Written and directed by Spheeris, it follows a young boy from a broken home who falls in with a group of punk squatters. Calling themselves The Rejected, they create their own family – complete with a Mohawked tyke who rides a Big Wheel -- and support themselves by raiding the garages of wealthy neighborhoods. That turns out to be a fatal mistake.
One reason “Suburbia” never found an audience is probably because Spheeris doesn’t romanticize her punk characters. These adolescents are immature and somewhat self-important – in other words, realistic. In its climactic, tragic scene, the film assigns blame all around, which is something the self-righteous punk scene generally failed to do.