The movies always seemed to treat punk rockers as cartoonish thugs or brainless weirdos (or somehow got them confused with biker types); Suburbia (aka The Wild Side, D: Penelope Spheeris, 1983; with Chris Pederson, Bill Coyne, Flea, Timothy O'Brien, D.I., T.S.O.L., the Vandals) is a rare exception, an accurate, sympathetic look at the SoCal hardcore era. T.R. stands for Totally Rejected, a group of kids who are spurned by everyone but each other and squat in an abandoned subdivision that was initially intended to be a cozy L.A. suburb. The only residents now are the T.R. kids and roving packs of wild dogs; the local rednecks take great sport in shooting the wild dogs and see the T.R.s as the next nuisance to eradicate. The punks get in fights with Camaro-driving heshers at shows, steal food, and generally use their wits to survive, with Jack (Pederson) helping keep the loose-knit bunch unified. Unfortunately a cheap, manipulative ending almost invalidates the whole movie, but Suburbia (not to be confused with Rick Linklater's SubUrbia) is a sensitive, time-capsule look at a period that's all over with now, with music by some of the better L.A. bands of the time.
In Psych-Out (D: Richard Rush, 1968; with Max Julien, Susan Strasberg, Jack Nicholson, Dean Stockwell, Bruce Dern), deaf 17-year-old waif Strasberg makes her way to summer-of-love San Francisco to look for her long-lost brother and recruits Nicholson, Stockwell, and Julien to help her search. Along the way she discovers the allure of the hippie lifestyle, tunes in, turns on, and drops out, all the while developing a crush on heel Nicholson. Nicholson, as guitarist for his band Mumblin' Jim (seeing a ponytailed Nicholson fake his way through a bad "Purple Haze" ripoff is worth seeing by itself; "Stumblin' Jim" would have been a better name), is a callous jerk, ignoring Strasberg's feelings for him. Stockwell, however, sees through him like a Ziploc bag half full of "maryjane" and pledges his help in the search for Strasberg's sib. The brother turns out to be an LSD-addled Bruce Dern (surprise!), dressing in white robes and fancying himself a sort of brain-damaged mystic from all the acid. Poncey psychedelic rockers the Strawberry Alarm Clock play a song or two, as well as seminal garage punks the Seeds. It's not as cheesy as it sounds; the screenplay lends real depth to the characters, and Laszlo Kovacs' imaginative camera work gives it an appropriate Sixties-psych look.
Okay, it's stretching things a bit to say that Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (D: Russ Meyer, 1971; with John Lazar, Pam Grier, Edy Williams, Dolly Read, Cynthia Myers) is a rock & roll movie, but hell, it's great anyway. It's the story of the Carrie Nations, a phony-baloney all-girl band, and their fast, fast rise to the top of the music world. Along the way they run into Z-man the Teen Tycoon (Lazar), Lance Rock (Michael Blodgett, an ex-boyfriend of Nancy Davis), and the predatory Edy Williams, ending in a blood-stained orgy of drugs and murder. The already-way-the-hell-and-gone Strawberry Alarm Clock put in an appearance, but the main attraction is the babelicious, bounteous, bustingly buxotic bombshells the Carrie Nations, fronted by redhead Dolly Read (Playboy's Miss May '66). They alternate between treacly ballads and all-out (Russ Meyer-style) rockers, while confronting their personal demons in the decadent atmosphere of the L.A. music scene. It's a frenzy of over-the-top acting, extreme close-ups, rapid-fire edits, splashy use of color, and ultra-groovy dialogue penned by Roger Ebert. Best line: "This is my happening and it freaks me out!"
The skimpy plot of Rock! Rock! Rock! (D: Will Price, 1956; with Tuesday Weld, Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio, Chuck Berry, Alan Freed) concerns Weld's travails in raising money for a prom dress, the acting is not too great, but who the hell cares? It's just a skeleton for Alan Freed (who should have been discouraged from singing) to hang a bunch of rock & roll songs on. See the Burnette boys burn it up in their only film appearance, Chuck Berry duck-walks through "You Can't Catch Me," LaVerne Baker and Frankie Lyman and the Teenagers perform, and if you watch closely you'll see Valerie Harper. Unfortunately, you also have to sit through some no-namers and Connie Francis providing some songs for Tuesday to lip-sync to, but that's what your FF button is for.
When the opening credits of High School Confidential (D: Jack Arnold, 1958; with Russ Tamblyn, John Drew Barrymore, Michael Landon, Mamie Van Doren) feature that bourbon-drinkin', gun totin', scandalizin' l3-year-old-cousin-marryin' Jerry Lee Lewis being driven through town on a flatbed truck and pounding out the title song on his piano, you know you're in for a wild ride. Rusty Tamblyn blows into town and sets out to take the local gang away from slow-walkin', cool-talkin' John Drew Barrymore, then soon gets to the bottom of the dope racket, going all the way to the big boss pusher (Jackie Coogan! Uncle Fester!!). He asks the teacher (Jan Sterling) for a date and pulls his switchblade on any of the aged high schoolers who want to rumble. Problem is, puny old Tamblyn doesn't look like he could cut in front of you in the express lane at HEB, but whatever. Several kids go directly from weed to heroin, but Rusty turns out to be an undercover cop and the horrors of drug abuse are eradicated from another high school. Check out the brunette doing the Kerouac-meets-Lenny Bruce rant in the coffeehouse with Fester banging away on a piano. And, of course, Mamie Van Doren wears tight sweaters and shows off her poke-your-eye-out figure as Tamblyn's hot-to-trot "aunt." With Lyle Talbot, Charles Chaplin, Jr., and Corman vet Mel Welles. Is it a serious look at drug abuse, or just cheap exploitation? Either way, it's a classic of its kind. ó Jerry Renshaw