Who needs an encyclopedic, 158-minute history of the punk rock scene that sprung to life in the East Bay opposite San Francisco during the 1980s and early '90s?
First-time feature director Corbett Redford's Turn It Around: The Story of East Bay Punk began as project intended to document the early history of Green Day — by far the most traditionally successful band to emerge from that scene with an estimated (and mind-boggling) 85 million records sold worldwide — but the film quickly morphed into something more interesting and significant.
Beyond the cultural stereotypes of bratty kids thumbing their noses at the establishment with fast, loud and gleefully noncommercial music, early punk rock in the U.S. consisted of countless small, local scenes — often outside the big cities in forgotten towns and suburbs where young people had to make their own underground art, culture and fun.
The East Bay scene was one of the country's most vibrant (and remains so today), drawing kids from Oakland, Berkeley and surrounding suburbs. As seen in Turn It Around, that scene provided a context in which misfit kids could find themselves and make a difference simply by having the guts and imagination to make music and perform or contribute through mixtapes, fanzines, etc.
In words savored by Iggy Pop, godfather of punk and narrator of Turn It Around, punk rock is "a conversation with society — and often, it's an argument."
The film documents the particulars of the East Bay scene in far too much detail for casual viewers. Those willing to indulge the film's flaws — especially its long running time — may at least experience a surprising cumulative effect. Full portraits of one scene's people, places and bands add up to rare proof, a validation of sorts for the punk ethos described throughout the film.
That doesn't change the fact that there's a smart and funny 90-minute film buried deep inside Turn It Around, kicking and screaming to find its way out of a dense historical archive.
The film offers a rush of recent interviews with scene members and musicians both famous and obscure, along with snippets of vintage music, photography, video and graphic art. Its guiding lights are musician Tim Armstrong (Operation Ivy, Rancid) and the late Tim Yohannan, whose early East Bay punk radio show Maximum Rocknroll led to an influential fanzine of the same name and finally to 924 Gilman (Street), the Berkeley community-run arts space and all-ages punk venue that serves as Turn It Around's beating heart.
The film relies too heavily on hand-drawn film scratches and fake VHS visuals, and it often falls short of presenting the music of the East Bay scene in convincing style. But its focus on 924 Gilman makes up for a lot. Still going strong today, Gilman began with a few basic rules — no alcohol, drugs, violence, racism, sexism or homophobia — that allowed it ward off threats ranging from internal disputes to a takeover by Nazi skinheads. It remains a shining example of arts activism and shared responsibility, all while staying true to core ideals over the very long haul.
Maybe the film's completist approach to one scene's history will endear to it future generations of punks. It's not hard to imagine it being accepted as a kind of epic cinematic manifesto, an ideal for living for those with a certain perspective on the world. You could do far worse.