Art Doc of the Week | Los Punks: We Are All We Have
Two moments in Angela Boatwright’s documentary Los Punks: We Are All We Have illustrate how Hollywood sensibilities can be powerfully deployed in documentary filmmaking. The first is a guy pushing his wheelchair-bound friend around a frenzied mosh pit, putting him in the middle of the action while protecting him from the more violently thrashing bodies in the mix. The other is when the camera cuts from two African American boys standing on the roof of their home looking in wonder at the chaotic backyard concert taking place next door, with a young couple tenderly embracing and kissing in the middle of the chaos. Boatwright frames and edits the moments with a sculptor’s finesse, as attuned to their emotional currents and effects as any mainstream narrative filmmaker. (This is not a diss.) The first is meant to tug at your heartstrings. The second is a snapshot of paradox and irony in motion. Both absolutely work.
Boatwright, a photographer who’s been attending punk and metal concerts for almost thirty years, became fascinated with LA’s backyard punk culture, which is overwhelmingly Latino, after moving to LA from New York. DIY concerts are organized and promoted to a loyal fan base that spans East Los Angeles, Boyle Heights and South Central. Boatwright swings between documenting the larger subculture and zeroing in on a handful of individuals whose histories of poverty, domestic upheaval, and battles with assorted sociopolitical ills forge common ground between performers and fans. The scene, almost forty years old, is historicized by OGs like John Alvarado, who breaks down the appeal of the music to the first wave of Latino kids who embraced and made it, as well as the racial slurs that were tagged to the music they made. (The absence of LA’s Alice Bag, punk’s Latina goddess, from the film is notable, and there are many instances where her insights might have really given the film’s cultural analysis some heft.)
The film doesn’t want for captivating subjects: 15-year-old promoter April Desmadre; law student Gary Alvarez, who fronts the band Rhythmic Asylum and drops layered social commentary throughout; Nacho Corrupted, frontman for the band Corrupted Youth and an important promoter in his own right; and Alex Pedorro, whose sardonic recounting of his many suicide attempts are made all the more jolting for his magnetism and transparent pain (especially when he’s in the company of his hard-nosed Republican father). The film is engrossing and rewarding viewing, but its weakness is that Boatwright – understandably – became so mesmerized by her subjects that she didn’t quite do justice to her larger subject.
The personal narratives are riveting, but when the film ends you’re left with a lot of questions: How do the neighbors feel about these raucous gatherings? (We see a couple of flare ups but no real conversations.) How does the burgeoning Latino population in areas (Watts, Compton) that are historically primarily black navigate the myriad cultural differences (and maybe similarities)? Commentary from Alice Bag – or anyone else with a sharper political perspective and tongue – is sorely missed when the frontwoman for the all-women band Las Cochinas introduces a song about domestic violence but doesn’t elaborate on what she and fellow female artists bring to the table that the guys don’t. And when Nacho warmly converses with a couple of fey, seemingly gay boys after a concert and invites them to come back the following week, you wish Boatwright would’ve explored what punk means to them (especially given its deep queer roots).
Los Punks is available on iTunes.
Previously on Art Doc of the Week:
All images courtesy Angela Boatwright.