All the hype surrounding Floria Sigismondi’s new film The Runaways has us fretting over girls on film — and particularly girls of the non-mainstream variety. While Joan Jett and Cherie Currie are tough as nails, we worry that most of today’s filmic alternachicks fall squarely into the manic pixie dream girl category. The stock Natalie Portman or Zooey Deschanel character is cute, wacky, artsy-fartsy, charmingly damaged, and ultimately empty-headed: the kind of waif that has more to do with male screenwriters’ fantasies than actual women.
This annoying trend makes us long for the punk-rock movie heroines of yore. Sure, they weren’t perfect. Hell, some of them were even certifiably insane. But at least they made us more likely to start bands than pine for some geeky dude who, frankly, doesn’t deserve us. So, to indulge our own nostalgia — and hopefully help inspire a new generation of ass-kicking ladies — we’re counting down 10 essential films for the aspiring lady punk in your life.
Breaking Glass (dir. Brian Gibson, 1980) Do we ever tire of films that chronicle one ambitious musician’s rise from basement-bar obscurity to world domination followed by the inevitable fall that only an outsized ego can cause? Not when the protagonist in question is a steely broad named for Kate Bush and poised to take over the post-punk wasteland that was late-’70s Britain. Sure, there’s ample self-destruction on display — and no one can stay on top forever. But you won’t find better original music (produced by Bowie vet Tony Visconti and co-written by the star herself, Hazel O’Connor) or wilder futurist costumes anywhere.
Jubilee (dir. Derek Jarman, 1978) Avant-garde queer filmmaker Derek Jarman was an underground hero, famous for making movies that juxtaposed high and low, art and camp. His opus Jubilee is a paragon of both, encompassing a time-traveling Queen Elizabeth I, a rabid gang of anarchic young ladies, and more punk rockers than seems possible (Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Slits, Adam and the Ants, Wayne County). If that doesn’t whet your music-nerd appetite, perhaps you’d be interested to hear that the whole thing was scored by one Brian Eno?
Girl (dir. Jonathan Kahn, 1998) The film version of Blake Nelson’s novel Girl is a veritable parade of late-’90s teen stars: Dominique Swain! Selma Blair! Summer Phoenix! Tara Reid! Sean Patrick Flanery! A pre-Ally McBeal Portia de Rossi! Distracting cast aside, it’s the story of a high school overachiever (Swain) who abandons her boring, predictable existence for a grunge-flavored rock ‘n roll lifestyle. Think of it as a companion to My So-Called Life.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains (dir. Lou Adler, 1982) This punk classic was practically lost for years. When we finally saw it for the first time in high school, on grainy VHS at an all-ages living room venue that reeked of mold, it felt like our secret. The flick stars a quite young Diane Lane as the leader of an angry-girl trio that sports torn clothing and “skunk” hairdos. The ladies’ motto, as they win over a generation of screaming pubescents? “We don’t put out.” Luckily for today’s 16-year-olds, the film is now readily available on DVD.
Reform School Girls (Tom DeSimon, 1986) We’ll save you the plot summary on this send up of campy women’s prison movies. All you really need to know is that it involves teenage girls going batshit (with weapons!) and stars the late Plasmatics frontwoman Wendy O. Williams — one of rock’s all-time toughest daredevils — as the consummate menacing mean girl.
Times Square (dir. Allan Moyle, 1980) Two teen girls run away from home and start a punk band… all with the help of rock DJ Tim Curry. Their band is called the Sleez Sisters and the movie features a rooftop performance in the titular location. Like Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains, Times Square never quite got its due — but it did inspire an entire generation of riot grrrls, who were but riot toddlers when it debuted.
Black Box (Beth B. and Scott B., 1979) Post-punk icon Lydia Lunch is one of the scariest women of all time. And in addition to making some of the harshest, evilest music of the no wave era, the woman who claims Courtney Love stole her shtick also starred in tons of art films. In the short Black Box, a leather-clad Lunch is at her most terrifying, playing a merciless and arbitrary torturer.
Death Proof (dir. Quentin Tarantino, 2007) If we had our way, we wouldn’t have had to sit through Grindhouse‘s tepid first course, Planet Terror to get to Quentin Tarantino’s girl-power masterpiece. But now that an expanded version of the film is being sold on its own, we’ve accepted it into our personal library. This homage to car-obsessed B-movies takes its turn for the awesome when death-defying stunt woman Zoe Bell emerges as the heroine, taking down sociopathic killer Stuntman Mike. Top it off with April March’s sassy cover of Francoise Hardy’s “Laisse Tomber les Filles,” and we may have a classic on our hands.
I Shot Andy Warhol (dir. Mary Harron, 1996) She may not have been what you’d call sane, but Valerie Solanis was no manic pixie dream girl, either. In this biopic of the deranged lesbian separatist who wrote the cult classic rant S.C.U.M. Manifesto and, in her desperation for acknowledgment, fired a gun at pop art’s favorite son. We don’t recommend her as a role model, but we can’t get enough of Lili Taylor’s tough, New York-accented portrayal of Solanis — or, for that matter, Stephen Dorff as transsexual superstar Candy Darling. It doesn’t hurt that the whole thing was directed by one of our favorite filmmakers: You may know Mary Harron from American Psycho or The Notorious Bettie Page.
Don’t Need You: The Herstory of Riot Grrrl (Kerri Koch, 2005) Like the phenomenon it documents, Don’t Need You is a DIY kind of film. We saw it in a Baltimore basement with the filmmaker in attendance, in an audience of exuberant ladies (and their forward-thinking boyfriends). Featuring interviews with everyone from Kathleen Hanna to Corin Tucker to Bratmobile’s Allison Wolfe, the doc combines insightful interviews with archival performance footage. Considering that many of today’s teenagers were born after riot grrrl’s heyday, girls shouldn’t miss this record of an essential moment for women in music.