Wake Up Punk

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Joe Corré in Wake Up Punk
"Across the whole of the film, Askew strikes a good balance between historical analysis, political polemic and human interest, drawing out the characters of his interviewees."

MC Lars summed it up in a single line: Hot Topic is not punk rock. Alternatively, one might go back to Johnny Rotten: never mind the bollocks. Once upon a time, wearing a ripped t-shirt was a sign of rebellion against consumerism and social exclusion; then it became a fashion statement for the middle classes; then high street chain stores started selling pre-ripped t-shirts for more that what many families had to spend on food for a week, and originals associated with famous names started changing hands for thousands at auction. Punks liked to boast that the establishment didn’t know what to do about the movement. It knew exactly what to do. It bought it, branded it, toned it down, chewed it up, sold it back to us on its own terms. When the language of rebellion has been co-opted, how can people voice resistance?

Punk was never about the t-shirts, argues Nigel Askew. It wasn’t about the music either. Punk is a philosophy, a way of living, and it has never been more urgently needed.

Inspired by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s son Joe Corré’s decision to burn an estimated £5m worth of punk memorabilia, this documentary, which screened as part of the 2022 Glasgow Film Festival, explores the horrified reaction of many who thought that it should be sold instead and the money given to charity, and of those who considered it cultural terrorism, whilst Joe makes the case that the only way to revolt meaningfully against capitalism is to stop playing those games. He will go on to admit, with a twinge of embarrassment, that he has no idea what anything is valued at anyway, and isn’t sure that he can actually assemble £5m worth of memorabilia. He does, however, know where to get help. As always, Vivienne is there to assist, sympathetic and magnanimous and shrewd.

She looks astounding for an 81 year old woman: clear skinned, straight-backed, bright eyed, and still dressing in a way that is entirely her own. Her candid interviews provide the backbone of the film and serve as a reminder that honesty is a lot of what makes punk dangerous. There is extended discussion about Malcolm, including the pain he caused by rejecting Joe, and Vivienne shares some shocking stories, slicing through the myths with which he shielded himself, yet retaining a certain tenderness towards him nonetheless. She speaks about some of the women who have largely vanished from the corporatised version of punk history (the Queen of Punk, Jordan, is also interviewed here, just a few months before her death) and she remembers Sid Vicious with affection, elucidating just how broken and troubling he was but still seeing him first and foremost as a sweet-natured boy.

Alongside this, Joe and her other son, Ben Westwood, share their own memories and thoughts. Some of the film’s best scenes see the three of them engaged in conversation in her studio, where she appears to be working as hard as ever. There is also, naturally, a fair bit of archive stuff, with still photographs prompting memories, but the focus here is as much on the present as the past. The similarity of that present to a more remote past is captured in cheerfully unsubtle fashion by a framing device which presents scenes from a Dickensian factory where scruffy young urchins are discovering the concept of punk for the first time. Though at first this feels clumsy and may make viewers impatient, it eventually establishes a rhythm and provides Askew with a platform to contemplate the questions facing those who wish to articulate an anti-establishment position today.

Across the whole of the film, Askew strikes a good balance between historical analysis, political polemic and human interest, drawing out the characters of his interviewees. it’s in the latter regard that the film really excels. Some viewers will be disappointed that there isn’t more music in it. There is some reflection on how Malcolm saw music as a useful tool through which to connect with people’s emotions, but it doesn’t really seem necessary in light of what Askew is trying to do. Wake Up Punk is a call to arms but it’s the human element which illustrates why that matters.

Reviewed on: 17 Apr 2022
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Wake Up Punk packshot
A documentary exploring the legacy of punk and questioning its latter-day commercial influences.

Director: Joe Corré

Starring: Vivienne Westwood, Joe Corré, Ben Westwood, Jordan

Year: 2022

Runtime: 83 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK

Festivals:

Glasgow 2022

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