Movie: D.O.A.: A Rite of Passage (1980)

Over the years, I have had far more conversations about punk rock than about any other kind of music.  I know many people who feel strongly that punk music is all about the sound: fast and loud.  Many such people I have spoken with believe punk music still exists today, even when it is highly commercial in nature.  I have had people tell me Blink-182 is punk rock.

I’m more of a purist, and I believe the music cannot be separated from the environment and politics that shaped it.  I feel punk must be an honest expression of a person’s life and not just a style.  I’m not saying you have to pierce your face with safety pins, yet there is a significant difference between those who do so and those who buy fake safety pins that are the equivalent of clip-on earrings.

D.O.A.: A Rite of Passage, is a documentary about first-generation punk rock in the UK and USA.  As implied by the second half of the title, the bands and their fans shown here are largely of the variety who would wear the real safety pins.  Tellingly, there’s also a brief shot of a vendor selling “punk pins” for a buck a pop, and we see many fair-weather fans who are likely wearing that novelty version.

The central focus of this doc is the Sex Pistols’s seven-stop tour of the US, their sole excursion to the colonies in their original incarnation.  In keeping with manager Malcolm McLaren’s mischievous style, the band is largely booked in venues in the south where altercations with the locals are most likely to occur.  As one concert attendee says, “There hasn’t been a rock ‘n’ roll group to hate in a long time.”

And there are fights, notably a moment where Sid Vicious beats angry people in the crowd over the head with his bass.  This is a startling moment we are fortunate to have preserved on film.

When one learns what happened behind-the-scenes of D.O.A., it is amazing we have any footage of the Pistols on stage in the USA, period.  The band didn’t want to be filmed and, inexplicably, neither did Warner Brothers, their US record label.  The label didn’t have anybody filming these shows, so it’s baffling why they wouldn’t want any free publicity.

We only learn about this in an accompanying documentary on the bluray which is nearly a half-hour longer than the movie it is about.  That may sound counterintuitive but, together, these two documentaries tell a complete story that neither does on its own.

If D.O.A. is a documentary about punk music, the accompanying making-of is about punk filmmaking.  Dodging bouncers, manager and various people associated with Warners, a unique approach was needed to make a documentary about a punk band on tour. 

We learn how film crew members disguised themselves as press from various organizations.  When Warners catches on, photos of the documentary crew are distributed to security at venues.  This is alarming because not only is it going to make their goal more difficult, but the crew will become increasingly more susceptible to the violence casually doled out even towards random, paying concertgoers.

Yet the filmmakers persevered and ended up with priceless footage that was later freely lifted for an authorized Pistols documentary, The Filth and the Fury.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough footage for a feature film exclusively focused on the tour, so we also get a significant amount of content about the UK scene.

That may sound like filler, but it is largely fascinating.  For one thing, we get to see exciting performances by groups like X-Ray Spex and Sham 69.  We also get to know a band of never-was and never-wills appropriately named Terry and The Idiots, just to show the alleged lack of technical proficiency for which punk bands were known still had its levels of expertise.

Even more surprising than the footage of the bands are the interviews the filmmakers managed to get with such UK conservatives as Mary Whitehouse.  I only previously knew of Whitehouse from a movie I saw about the UK “video nasties” scandal.  Here, she has the same sort of “who will think of the children?” histrionics, only concerning punk rock this time.

Everybody I have ever spoken to about punk seems to have a different view of it, such as which eras and artists qualify as such.  And yet, I don’t think there can be any doubt as to whether the artists in D.O.A.: A Rite of Passage qualify.  When paired alongside its companion making of, this blu-ray set presents a fascinating snapshot of an era when music could be truly dangerous, and trying to capture those moments on film could be dangerous, too.

Dir: Lech Kowalksi


Watched on MVD Rewind Collection blu-ray