Mixing a 1940’s style noir detective film with the grittiness of mid 1970’s New York City is the peanut butter firmly engulfed in the sleaziest of chocolate. Throw in the then still-fresh punk movement and you will have the bittersweet treat of Carter Stevens’ 1977 film Punk Rock. Wade Nichols aka Dennis Parker, whom would go on to both disco cult fame with his 1979 song “Like an Eagle” (courtesy of Neil Bogart’s Casablanca Records) and for appearing on the soap opera The Edge of Night for a number of years, stars as ex-cop and current gumshoe Jimmy Dillinger. His most recent case involves finding Jenny (Susaye London), whose rich family have been looking high and low for her. Jimmy has found her—oh, has he found her, six ways to Sunday—but as soon as his back is turned, she is kidnapped yet again. With the friendly dame on his conscience and her wealthy daddy still footing the bill, he has got to find her again and soon.
Someone is clearly really wanting Jenny back and this second time around puts the hard-bitten with a heart of semi-precious gold Dillinger on a trail brimming with forced prostitution, junk, punk rock music and the oldest trick in the world—-the unforeseen double cross. Don’t worry. In this age of fast-food information and meme-blips, I refuse to spoil the ending of this impactive film. Shouldn’t your eyes be pure for something in this age of “if it bleeds, it leads?” Our souls might be a lost cause, but at least your peepers can be clean for this. It’s one hell of a surprise ending.
Punk Rock works on two different but very key levels. The first one is the fact that it succeeds as an unlikely but tight retro-noir-punk-rock hybrid. It has all the right crime elements, even involving a girl-sex-ring led by a whip-wielding musician/pimp played by none other than Elda Gentile aka Elda Stiletto from Elda & the Stilettos! (A group that is probably better known now for once featuring a pre-Blondie Debbie Harry and Chris Stein. According to director Stevens, Harry was initially considered for the part, but took a pass.) There are truly grimy-looking drug pushers, suave pseudo-old-world-mobsters and one really fantastic underworld figure named Igor, played fabulously by Bobby Astyr. Talk about used-car-dealer meets pimp-goombah-sleazeball charm, Astyr is all of this and more.
At the center is Wade Nichols, whose old school matinee idol good looks and acting chops made him a perfect private detective fit for the 1940s meets 1970s. Nichols innate charisma and strong masculinity without being too macho, were traits that fit him into this role like a glove. Robert Kerman, billed here as Richard Bolla, is also good as the wise-ass police inspector foil to Nichols’ Dillinger.
The second level is a fascinating historical peek into a New York City pre-gentrification, pre-Guiliani and pre-gummed up TGIFridays/Disney Store neon hell. Grime, trash and dirty melting piles of snow line the streets and even the legit storefronts look grungy. 42nd Street is shown in all of its electric candy store of sordid delights glory and thrumming with pure mutherfucking vice. Even better is you get an inside peek of one of the birth places of New York punk, Max’s Kansas City, a club so great that Jayne County once wrote a song about it!
In fact, it’s the scenes set in Max’s that are the most historically important, especially for a music fan. In Punk Rock, we get to see three different bands play. The first two acts, The Squirrels (no relation, from what I can tell, to the Seattle novelty band of the same name), The Spicy Bits (a super obscure band from the scene that did at least warrant a name check in Dead Boys’ guitarist Cheetah Chrome‘s autobiography) and most importantly, The Fast. Every movement has its stars that should have and could have made it huge, but yet, never quite did. The Fast not being household names then or now is still a smear of injustice on the music industry. (And trust me, that’s a structure that has more stains on it than a port-o-potty on the last day of Sturges.) Formed by brothers Armand aka Mandy and Miki Zone and later on joined by their younger brother Paul, The Fast were a power-pop band with a punk/hard rock edge whose energy, stage presence and bizarro rock image set them apart from anyone else on the scene. Need proof? Watch their renditions of “Kids Just Wanna Dance” and “Boys Will Be Boys” in Punk Rock. (Plus, the latter features the most rock & roll use of Cheerios, ever.)
Interesting note about Punk Rock is that there is an X-rated cut where instead of the musical sequences, you get explicit sex scenes. Not to underrate the joie de vivre of things like visual insertion, I would still take The Fast over that any day. Though that said, this film is proof that directors and actors from the X-rated world could act and make a pretty great little film if they wanted to. It’s not all pizza delivery boys and horny housewives.
Watch the scene from ‘Punk Rock’ with The Fast, after the jump…