Turn It Around (photo: SarahJayn Kemp)
The Wednesday night premiere at the Alamo Drafthouse of Turn It Around: the Story of East Bay Punk seemed a little like a punk rock prom, with leather-jacketed audience members booing former California governor Ronald Reagan when he came on screen.
Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys buzzed around the lobby in his Trump Hates Me shirt, and Fat Mike of NOFX adjusted his black, satiny slip while checking out Blatz records at the merch table. Tre Cool of Green Day hugged various other mohawked friends. When asked what he hoped to get from the film, former Samiam and Mr. T. Experience bassist Aaron Rubin said, “I think it’s just going to be a lot of nostalgia for me. I mean, it will be great to see all those people and that time.” Rubin, who dropped out of college twice to tour with his bands before ultimately heading back to law school, added that though he isn’t very involved with the scene today, his son, Ben, plays in a band, Krudwerk. At the premiere, Ben — sporting messy dark blue hair, black-rim glasses, and a cherubic face — joined his father for a history lesson with personal ties.
Reaching nearly 160 minutes, Turn It Around: The Story of East Bay Punk is a long film that feels incredibly short. Cataloging the development of the Bay Area scene from the budding of punk in the late ’70s through the creation of Gilman and the major-label interest in the mid-’90s, Turn weaves a complex narrative, highlighting influential names and events while not dwelling on any one period for too long.
The first feature-length documentary by director Corbett Redford, Turn comes off as a project that was truly a labor of love for its participants. Redford is known to many for his work the Bobby Joe Ebola and the Children MacNuggits. When asked how he got into filmmaking, he replied, “Maybe it’s not the best thing to say, but documentary is another way to tell stories. Through my band and songs, I always told stories. Through comedy or whatever I ended up doing, it was always about the stories. So, not to undermine of the art in documentary, but I knew I could pull it off.” He continued to describe how his personal involvement in the scene made him a good candidate for the job: “I think with this whole thing, with such a sacred scene in the Bay Area and with so many people – we interviewed 185 people – somebody who is not an outlier, someone who had the trust of the people involved or somebody who, if I didn’t have the trust, could speak with compassion and courage and get other people to participate.”
It is clear throughout the film that there’s a real connection between all those involved; I found the greatest asset of the film to be that the storytelling is done through relationships. Though presented in chronological order, this is not simply a Ken Burns archival piece but a pulse check on a still-viable entity. There is plenty of deliciously scratchy VHS footage from the old days, including a pint-sized Billie Joe Armstrong and Mike Dirnt playing to an empty backyard as members of Desecrated Youth, young punks racing tricycles in the pit at Gilman, and Yeastie Girlz playing “Iron Man” on feminine-hygiene-products as being used as kazoos. However, it is the tales of going to shows, playing together, and sticking by each other that really stitch this piece together. This isn’t surprising, as the East Bay punk scene really has always seemed to be about community, but the honesty and care with which those relationships are portrayed in this film are remarkable.
Unlike earlier attempts to capture this scene, such as Jack Boulware’s book Gimme Something Better, Turn is an accessible piece for anyone. Whereas Gimme was a treasure for enthusiasts already involved or interested in the scene, its narrative is so dense and complex that outsiders would probably be overwhelmed. Turn provides just enough backstory for the personalities presented to be relevant while not lecturing the punk rock canon to anyone. Viewers might not be familiar with all the talking heads featured, but they present a relatable and endearing message. It’s like being a kid and flipping through records: You might not be familiar with anything in that milk crate, but you’re going to check out the cover art and the song titles, and chances are something is going to intrigue you.
There’s substance to the craft of this film, too. Sounding like Sam Elliott in The Big Lebowski, punk rock grandfather Iggy Pop’s voiceovers and silent video snippets of prolific writer and musician Aaron Cometbus worm through the film. The fact that Midwesterner Iggy Pop does not appear on screen and Cometbus, who is now mostly known for his beautifully illustrated and penned zine, Cometbus, only speaks in archival footage somehow seems fitting. There’s stories that are being told outside of the interviews that put this scene into a larger context. Voices from afar placed over a zine creator hard a work in his library filled with cats and coffee give a nod to the fact that punk is existing every day in places all over. The film clarifies in these ways that it is not just a precious, interned time. Turn is honoring the scene, not eulogizing it.
That isn’t to say that the scene is thriving without challenges today. Kamala Parks, board member at 924 Gilman and lead vocalist for Kamala and the Karnivores, was working the merch table at the premier. A key contributor to the film, I spoke with her earlier on the phone about the continuation of the scene and the very real obstacles that it faces. “Ultimately, we’re looking to buy our own place,” she said of the 924 Gilman Street Project. “Gilman is facing being in an area that is rapidly gentrifying and we all know the trajectory with which Bay Area real estate is going.” She went on to explain that Gilman had recently been granted status as an official charity, so people can donate money tax-free. Alongside Gilman’s struggles, there is an economic hardship for creators in the scene. “People who are artistic and involved, but don’t necessarily make a lot of money have to move. The long-term consequences for what’s happening in this area now could be fairly devastating for any alternative way of life – whether it’s the punk scene or any group of people who try to get away from that make a lot of money, materialistic way of things.”
Despite this reflection on the state of things, Parks is ultimately hopeful for the scene. When asked about her perception of the film, Parks commented, “I like that it doesn’t portray it as something overly special. I really wanted to make the point that it wasn’t just a special time and now it’s gone. I didn’t want it to leave someone with impression that it’s the past and it’s gone.” Parks expressed excitement over new local area bands and musical endeavors, including her involvement in 1986’d Music Industries.
One unifying factor between the film, the bands, and the people I talked to in the scene was this ultimate feeling of support for each other and for the passion they share. Before we parted, I shared with Kamala that, as a person who grew up on the other side of the country reading fanzines and going to punk shows myself, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to weave my own narrative about this film and its importance in a way that would really give it the attention it deserves. “Oh, I’m sure you’ll do a fine job,” she said. When it’s all said and done, the story of East Bay punk is one of encouragement, community, and passion – and it is beautifully told in this film.