Suburbia (1983)

You’re Penelope Spheeris and you amazed the disenfranchised punk and metal hoards with your debut feature film: 1981’s epic punkumentary The Decline of Western Civilization. (Yes, we did DoWC II and DoWC III). Yeah, we know her most popular film—and the highest-grossing film of her career—is the rock-centric (and very cool) Wayne’s World. But that’s for the mainstream Queen and Alice Cooper fans. (Okay, so for two Halloweens I dressed up as Wayne: once recruiting my blonde sister, then my blonde girlfriend, as Garth).

For guys like me and Sam (he bullied for wearing a Samhain t-shirt to school; me, The Clash), this dark tale of two Los Angeles brothers escaping their alcoholic mother and a runaway escaping her pedophile father that come find solace in the surrogate family formed by a band of punk-rock squatters, who end up battling the local rednecks for supremacy of an abandoned housing tract, is Penelope’s best known film.

. . . And if wishes were horses, beggars would ride, so says the Scottish proverb. And if VHS-repeat viewings (today, it’s DVDs and online streams) were dollars, Suburbia would be Penelope Spheeris’s highest-grossing film—so goes the B&S About Movies analog edict. That’s right, Wayne. Don’t let the door on Stan Mikita’s Donuts hit you in the arse on the way out . . . and party on.

The original Vestron Video VHS with New World Pictures’ dopey post-apoc artwork.

The formula that makes Suburbia work is the same formula that makes Jonathan Kaplan’s juvenile delinquency rock fest Over the Edge (1979) work: Instead of casting the ubiquitous 30-year-actors as “teenagers” that is typical of a major studio, teen-centric flick (outside of two newbie-trained actors, OTE’s teen cast were first timers), Spheeris not only cast real teenagers, she cast the film with non-professional street kids and punk rock musicians to play all of the roles. One of those punks (the pet rat-loving and stray doberman-training Razzle) was Flea, who would later star in Spheeris’s punk-inspired western, Dudes (1987); he soon surpass the musical careers of D.I, T.S.O.L, the Vandals (all who perform and act in the film) as the bassist of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. (D.I performs “Richard Hung Himself,” T.S.O.L “Wash Away” and “Darker My Love,” and The Vandals “The Legend of Pat Brown.” The Vandals would also appear in Dudes to perform “Urban Struggle.”)

It’s that neophyte casting that feeds the cinéma vérité narrative style of Suburbia and lends to natural actions and authentic dialog that, while scripted and staged, ranks Suburbia alongside Adam Small’s punkumentary Another State of Mind (1984) as one of the greatest punk films—and teenagers-in-revolt (i.e., juvenile delinquency flicks)—ever made. Yeah, we watched Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptations of S.E Hinton’s beloved early ’70s young adult novels The Outsiders and Rumblefish—both released the same year as Suburbia—but while competently crafted and acted, neither rings with the true sounds of celluloid liberty.

Courtesy of Shout Factory reissuing Suburbia as part of their Roger Corman Cult Classics DVD series in 2010, you can’t not find a copy. In fact, two of my local county library branches carry it. That’s more than I can say for the old Vestron Video VHS: I was a member of six video stores (three mom n’ pops, three chains) and only two carried it. And the two stores that did, thanks to New World Pictures’ dopey post-apoc artwork, they filed it in the sci-fi section—right next to copies of duBeat-e-o. Thankfully, the subsequent DVD and soundtrack CD reissues retained the original artwork of the theatrical one-sheet and Engima Records’ soundtrack LP (images via IMDb/Discogs).

You can stream that Shout Factory version for free on TubiTV, which also carries Spheeris’s follow ups to Suburbia: 1985’s The Boys Next Door (Tubi), itself a juvenile delinquency classic (that also ranks alongside 1979’s Over the Edge), and 1987’s Dudes (Tubi) . But if you’d rather ditch the ads, there’s a rip of Suburbia on You Tube. You can also listen to the soundtrack in its entirety on You Tube as you read the liner notes over on Discogs.

Music trivia flotsam and jetsam: Alex Gibson led L.A.’s BPeople for several years in the late ‘70s; the quartet started out as the Little Cripples (never recorded) with bassist Paul B. Cutler. When BPeople (a somber Joy Division-styled quartet with synths and saxophone) disbanded as result of lead singer Michael Gira relocating to New York to form the Swans (doing shows alongside Sonic Youth (Desolation Center), Gibson embarked on a solo career; Paul B. Cutler formed 45 Grave with Don Bolles of the Germs.

We all came to know 45 Grave with their death-punk classic “Party Time” from their debut album Sleep in Safety (1983; Enigma) via its inclusion on another punk flick classic, Return of the Living Dead. And we know the Germs courtesy of their appearance in The Decline of Western Civilization, which featured songs from their Joan Jett-produced debut, GI (1979; Slash).

The Vandals and D.I (an outgrowth of the Adolescents) each continued recording into the mid-2000. As The Vandals contributed songs to several more soundtracks (Glory Daze), drummer-bassist Joe Escalante made his leading man debut in the direct-to-video punk flick, That Darn Punk (1996).

T.S.O.L, through a plethora of roster upheavals and style changes (hard core, metal, and back again), continue to record. They also performed “Hit and Run” in another L.A. punk flick, The Runnin’ Kind (1989), as well as provide songs to The Return of the Living Dead and Dangerously Close. They also provided “Flowers by the Door” and “Hear Me Cry” to Hear Me Cry, an ’80s installment of the CBS Schoolbreak Special (yeah, we found it on You Tube).

Gibson parlayed his scoring work on Suburbia into a career as a music editor, most notably for the resume of Christopher Nolan, which culminated with his winning an Academy Award in 2018 for sound editing on the film for Nolan’s Dunkirk.

And good ol’ Roger Corman, never one never one to waste a set, costume, or frame of footage (Battle Beyond the Stars into Galaxy of Terror into Space Raiders; Eat My Dust recycled into Grand Theft Auto), used the concert sequences from Suburbia in White Star (1983), a Dennis Hopper-starring German rock flick that New World repurposed for the U.S. VHS market under the lame title, Let it Rock.

About the Author: You can learn more about the writings of R.D Francis on Facebook. He also writes for B&S About Movies.

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