Review: 'Turn It Around'

New documentary chronicles the heyday of the East Bay punk scene
Tim Armstrong of Berkeley ska-punks Rancid crowd surfs at 924 Gilman in 1993, shortly before they broke big. Photo by Murray Bowels

If there were a more thorough account of second-wave punk than Corbett Redford's documentary Turn it Around: The Story of East Bay Punk, would you even be able to sit through it? The film covers roughly 20 years and about 1,000 bands, from the kids to the elders—the latter including the Dead Kennedys' Jello Biafra, Penelope Houston and writer Jack Boulware.

The scene nurtured rich flora. Surprisingly varied musicians mounted the small stage at the 924 Gilman Street space in Berkeley. Though alcohol-free and with an unofficial ban on major-label bands, this nonprofit venue still draws performers from around the world. And the South Bay, of course: one 1980s poster glimpsed here highlights "Nasal Sex—all the way from Morgan Hill."

It's narrated in a skeptical sort of voice by Iggy Pop. If there are no stars, there are recurring figures. One was Tim Yohannan, publisher of the zine Maximum Rock and Roll. Yohannan was a Berkeley Maoist who felt that punk heralded the revolution to come. This indefatigable organizer was hard-nosed enough to debate Bill Graham on the state of rock music on KPFA radio. Larry Livermore, a writer and a founder of Lookout! Records, captured the sounds of the times. Throughout this film are the still photos of Murray Bowles, who caught hundreds of images of this fleeting underground scene.

Has there ever been a documentary on punk that had so many women's voices in it? Interviewees include Adrienne Droogas of the all-female band Spitboy, Anna Joy Springer of the shriek-rock act Blatz, and Mordam Records' exec Ruth Schwartz, a co-editor at MR&R. The graffiti-splattered space, with its sign "NO RACISTS ALLOWED," was the site of the first theatrical play by later Cannes film fest winner Miranda July. Here played the openly gay Pansy Division, the Yeastie Girls' feminist rap, and GWAR's grisly puppet shows. Sometimes the bands were straight-edged rebels. Sometimes they were just plain lager louts. Honesty was preferred over proficiency.

The scene was full of escapees from nowherevilles all the way up to the Sacramento River and beyond, all those gloomy refinery towns between Berkeley and Crockett. Homely El Sobrante is described as a chunk of Kansas that some whimsical deity transplanted to the Bay Area. Yet "El Sob" was the cradle of Green Day, the one band seen here that really hit the jackpot.

Turn it Around is exec produced by Green Day, but don't believe the rumor that this film credits the band with inventing East Bay punk. The auteurs of American Idiot were, for a time, Gilmanites and Lookout! recording artists.

The jackpot hitters aren't the essence of this hymn to dead bands—whither, The Skinflutes and Sewer Trout? Green Day's own rise provokes the shocking sight of Jello Biafra saying something nice about a band that made millions: "I'm just glad that someone from the scene had success, carried out on their own terms." Age mellows the angriest punk. It says something about the effects of time that Green Day has executive-produced a movie mentioning Yohannan's accomplishments, even after the band did the song "Platypus" about Yohannan, a hate anthem that laughed at the man's terminal cancer.

The Gillman is still standing despite everything: the neighborhood's increasing gentrification, temporary closures, and lawsuits: someone once netted $16,000 for breaking his arm in a stage dive. It has even weathered inadvisable entertainment strategies. Witness 924's Zoe Axhelm's description of the time a performer dumped a box of razor blades off the stage.

The MR&R double-album Not So Quiet On The Western Front (1982) survives as an archive of this unsafe-for-radio sound. One track from it popped up in the headphones yesterday: "Dead Porker" by Fresno's band NBJ. The female lead singer was dead by 22, and all but one of her bandmates are gone, too. Maybe this single isn't the same thing as the only recording of an innovative 1920s bluesman, but it's a vital shard of a scene. No matter how small it is, a piece of art has life of its own. Happily, Redford found so many living veterans of the explosion, in this fine endorsement of the do-it-yourself principle.

Turn it Around: The Story of East Bay Punk
NR, 155 Mins.
Aug 10 at Camera 3

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