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SLC Punk! Still Alive 25 Years Later

A retrospective review of the cult classic from 1998

Describing the film SLC Punk! is tricky. Saying it’s about alienated youth bristling against the status quo makes it sound like a million other indie movies. Calling it a punk rock coming-of-age story is equally hazardous. The term punk rock may turn off some potential viewers. As Iggy Pop once said it’s “a word used by dilletantes and heartless manipulators… that’s based on contempt.” Plus, labels tend to reduce things making them less than they are. That would be a disservice to a film which steadily earned cult classic status in the twenty-five years since its release.

SLC Punk! centers around Stevo and his friends, primarily Heroin Bob. The pair portrayed with phenomenal charm by Matthew Lillard and Michael Goorjian. The tribe, as Lillard’s Stevo has dubbed their curious community, is mostly a group of punk rock loving misfits living in Salt Lake City, Utah. Over a series of comical misadventures, the audience is introduced to various characters as well as their personal philosophies.

Matthew Lillard as Stevo walking around a graffiti covered apartment wearing only a towel and sporting spikey blue hair.
Matthew Lillard as Stevo.

It’s often done in an intriguing nonlinear fashion as Stevo will literally pause the film to relate the context and motivations behind certain events. For instance, a lengthy humorous flashback explains that Heroin Bob received his misleading moniker due to an intense fear of needles and absolute aversion to drugs. As such, the audience learns about characters, and their sense of humor, while establishing the realities of a small, tightknit community.

This jumping around could easily be called a visual metaphor indicative of punk rock. That’s because it turns the film into a chaotic yet oddly comprehensible jumble. However, it’s also a way of exploring the main character Stevo. How he relates things to the audience says as much about him as any event in the film. Furthermore, it allows for a certain clarity. There’s no need for the audience to divine the nature of the world presented, it’s stated outright. This is what punk is and with viewers thus informed, the story moves forward.

Interestingly, these micro lectures subtly set up twists. Although Stevo is determined to waste his life doing nothing as some form of protest of society’s ills, he’s clearly a person more passionate than his intentional apathy implies. As such, SLC Punk! creates a dissonance which is wonderfully resolved by the film’s end. In essence, the whole movie is a visual thesis with the finale being a literal conclusion.

Michael Goorjian as Heroin Bob in SLC Punk!, his hair in a short black mohawk as he glares at his reflection in a mirror
Michael Goorjian as Heroin Bob

It’s also nice to see a film about punk rock that’s not about musicians. The social nature of punk culture is more the focus. Yes, the characters in SLC Punk! love the music and its various messages, but the movie centers on how that shapes them as individuals as well as defines their community. As such, punk isn’t presented as a monolithic gathering of studded leather jackets and mohawks. Not much unlike Penelope Spheeris’s The Decline of Western Civilization (parts 1 and 3), SLC Punk! shows off the diverse nature of punk affiliated individuals.

Yet, no punk centered film can exist without the music. In that regard, SLC Punk! boasts a satisfying soundtrack. Besides some solid needle drops featuring the likes of Generation X, Dead Kennedys, Blondie, and The Stooges, there’s a fabulous set of fiery tunes courtesy of The 8 Bucks Experiment. They portray a British band called Extreme Corporeal Punishment, and their scene captures not only the wild abandon of a typical punk show, but the sound of it too. According to writer-director James Merendino, to this day some fans still think ECP was a real 80s punk band.

This authenticity runs throughout SLC Punk! That’s especially important when exploring a culture of any kind. After all, the movie isn’t so much about what punk is, rather it explores why people are drawn to it.

Jennifer Lien, Jason Segel, and Matthew Lillard waiting outside quarantine in SLC Punk for their friend's release.
Jennifer Lien, Jason Segel, and Matthew Lillard.

Something relatively easy to understand since the film takes place in 1985. Given the recent popularity of media nostalgic for the 1980s, this film is a welcome reminder not everyone enjoyed the time period. Those who didn’t conform to a very specific notion of the status quo often found themselves socially rejected, isolated, and left to rot. Not to mention, the movie arrived right around the 90s surge of pop-punk, a legion of radio friendly rebels as dangerous as bubblegum razorblades. SLC Punk! offered a reminder of the scene’s grittier side albeit in an oddly comical light-hearted way.

As much as filmmakers like to believe they can prepare to make a good movie, films are more often lightning in a bottle. Though preparation increases the odds, there’s no guarantee of success. The history of Hollywood is littered with great filmmakers leading a stellar cast off a cliff. Steven Spielberg did it twice with Always and 1941, while Francis Ford Coppola’s box office bomb One from the Heart blew him straight into bankruptcy. Most movies are matchstick mansions. It doesn’t take much to break or burn them down. So, when things turn out right, it’s usually because something genuine has been put on screen.

Thanks in no small part to stellar performances across the board, SLC Punk! is alive with characters who feel authentic. Even in their more cartoonish moments, there’s a quality to them that’s endearing. One can’t help being a little envious of the comradery between individuals onscreen, not to mention the brazen rebelliousness of others. It feels like a community worth being a part of which is, in some ways, what punk is, a place for the misfits to feel less alone.

Devon Sawa with giant spikey green hair chatting with James Duval and a pack of mods in SLC Punk!
Devon Sawa, James Duval, and a pack of mods.

Matthew Lillard’s performance throughout the film is top notch. It’s hard to imagine this movie being entertaining without him. It’s his charm, exuberance, and emotion that helps the film work as it steadily unpeels the layers to Stevo’s personality. The clever part being the audience is doing this at the same time as the character. Consequently, SLC Punk! becomes a coming-of-age story where the goal isn’t rites of passage but maturity through self-realization.

Furthermore, Stevo grows up not because of triumph but tragedy. Apologies for potential spoilers, but someone dies. Their loss due to an unpredictable accident, while confirmation of Stevo’s personal beliefs about chaos dominating existence, is an emotionally shattering experience. All the sneering sarcasm of his punk façade is stripped away, and a young person is left wailing about not being ready for reality, the very reality he acted so arrogantly aware of throughout the film. It’s a harsh reminder that life doesn’t care about any of us, so apathy is a strange stance to take since the only things which care about people are other people.

In that respect, SLC Punk! is less a celebration of punk so much as it is a breakdown of how that mentality shouldn’t stop at simple rebellion. That’s just the start. At risk of sounding pretentious, I dare say it’s reminiscent of common misconceptions about Nietzsche. Stevo’s conclusion calls to mind The Banalization of Nihilism by Karen Leslie Carr, who wrote, that in “the advent of nihilism… culture would perish, under the nothingness that ensues… purge it of a way of viewing the world that was both debilitating and false, thereby opening the way for healthier forms of self-expression.” In other words, punk rock nihilism rebels against the system, exposing its flaws, but that’s only the start of the revolution.

Christopher McDonald and McNally Sagal as suburbanite parents in SLC Punk!
Christopher McDonald and McNally Sagal as suburbanite mom and dad.

Furthermore, rewatching SLC Punk! recently reminded me of an anthology called “Punkademics: the basement show in the ivory tower”. Specifically, an article by Ross Haenfler “Punk Ethics and the Mega-University”. In it, Haenfler writers, “Punk is to some degree about recognizing and reconnecting with our humanity and the humanity of others… to resist the dehumanizing systems that crush not just our individuality and creativity but also our compassion and ability to connect with people.” That’s certainly the case with this movie.

SLC Punk! isn’t just a window into a social subset’s rules. It’s about how people use the aesthetics and philosophies of a culture to identify and connect with others. Not only friends but all the people who resonate with these expressions of self then become a community. Those at the center being practically family. As such, SLC Punk! shows something very human and universal in a way that makes its misfits relatable. Particularly the peace of mind that comes from knowing you belong somewhere.

Other than its unique storytelling in the form of Stevo’s cutaways, Merendino didn’t take many cinematic risks. That’s an understandable consequence given the film’s modest budget and short production schedule. Still, some cinematic flare exists. For instance, there’s a fabulous transition at one point as Stevo leaves his apartment, stepping like a stage play straight into another building elsewhere. Camera movement and jump cuts help keep up the sense of a kinetic pace, and there’s a great sense of the film being aware of its own artifice.

Annabeth Gish as Trish, a bohemian headshop owner in SLC Punk, Matthew Lillard and Michael Goorjian by her side.
Annabeth Gish as Trish.

However, overall, it isn’t a slick cinematic flick which I believe adds to its charm. SLC Punk! feels stripped down. Clever on occasion but sticking to the essentials necessary to convey its story.

And in that regard, SLC Punk! isn’t always flattering. Like the aforementioned Decline of the Western Civilization, the movie isn’t afraid to show an unpleasant side to punk. Mainly that, as cathartic as the lifestyle may be, it doesn’t necessarily have all the answers. Worse, as the character Brandy, portrayed by Summer Phoenix, observes, punk may be more fashion statement than act of rebellion. Whether an audience agrees is another matter entirely, but it’s great that SLC Punk! unflinchingly proposes these notions.

Released in 1998, the movie didn’t do well critically. Nathan Rabin of The A.V. Club slammed the picture saying it was, “filled with cheap irony, heavy-handed sentiment, and cartoonish bumpkins, SLC Punk! takes a potentially fascinating subject and reduces it to a mawkish compendium of film-festival clichés.” Writing for Film Journal International, David Luty penned the opinion, “a lively but insubstantial tour through the chaos and rage-loving punk world of Salt Lake City, Utah.” However, nothing becomes a cult classic by being beloved. At least not right out the gate.

Punk band 8 Bucks Experiment performing as Extreme Corporal Punishment in SLC Punk!
Punk band 8 Bucks Experiment performing as Extreme Corporal Punishment.

Most fans found the film during that bygone era of video rental stores. Cruising the aisles, looking for a Friday night feature, the green and orange VHS cover featured blue-haired Lillard, mohawked Goorjian, and Annabeth Gish. Typed across the bottom, Anthony Kaufman of indieWIRE promised a picture like “John Hughes meets Sid and Nancy.” It would catch the attention of folks like certain Chicago kids listening to Bhopal Stiffs, 88 Fingers Louie, or The Barbie Army. Throw it in the VCR expecting some pretentious indie bullshit and get caught off guard by its charm and sentimentality.

No, the movie isn’t perfect, but films can hit the heart without being masterpieces. While SLC Punk! is not for everyone, that’s partly what makes it great. The audience who connects with it knows this movie is just for them.

Written by Jay Rohr

J. Rohr is a Chicago native with a taste for history and wandering the city at odd hours. In order to deal with the more corrosive aspects of everyday life he writes the blog and makes music in the band Beerfinger. His Twitter babble can be found @JackBlankHSH.

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