The late 1970s saw pockets of new artistic expression break out in rebellion against the staid and conservative old order in various cities all over the world. The most obvious example was of course punk rock and its rejection of the glamour and wealth that had come to be associated with pop music stardom. Whereas the Beatles had received honours from the Queen for services to their country, the Sex Pistols penned an attack on the establishment with their harsh and sardonic take on the country's national anthem, "God Save The Queen". However it was more than just a rejection of old standards taking place, as punk symbolized the populist attitude towards the arts of the time.
The "do it yourself", independent spirit that was so much a part of the early days of punk rock was also to be found in the film world as well. With the advent of video technology, it became less expensive for an individual to make a film on his or her own without the support of a major studio. This period of independence happened to coincide with the rise in popularity in North America of Germany's great experimental filmmakers of the day — Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder — who inspired many both in North America and Europe to become filmmakers.
One of those who was closely associated with Fassbinder was Ulli Lommel, who ended up working in New York City in the mid to late 1970s, becoming involved with both the punk scene and associated with Andy Warhol. It was during this period that he made the movie Blank Generation, staring New York punk rocker Richard Hell, which has now been re-issued on DVD by MVD Visual. The DVD also contains an all new, in-depth interview with Hell looking back on those days and commenting on the film. For those of you familiar with any of Hell's music from the 1970s you'll recognize the title of the film as being taken from the title of what was easily the most popular song he recorded with his group of that time, The Voidoids.
Don't be fooled by the cover of the DVD which reproduces the cover of the old Hell album of the same name, or the fact that it claims live performances of Hell and the Voidoids are part of the film. This is not a film about punk rock, or a punk rock film, in any shape or form. Richard Hell plays the roll of Billy, an aspiring punk "star", and the movie seems to be about his relationship with a French reporter who is supposedly shooting a film about him. Nada, played by Carole Bouquet, is also involved with a journalist from Germany, played by the film's director, who is in New York desperate to interview Andy Warhol.
If that sounds like very little to build a movie around, well, you're right, as the film is rather a disjointed mess with none of the scenes seeming to have little or anything to do with each other. One could make the argument that director Lommel was trying to create the sense of directionless and nihilism suggested by the movie's title by showing us the characters' own lack of purpose through these scenes. However there is so little of real substance within them, as an audience we quickly lose interest in what's going on with the characters.
As compensation of a sorts there are some great shots of New York City in the late 1970s – the movie was actually shot in 1977-78, even though it wasn't released until 1980 – including footage shot in CBGBs of Richard Hell and The Voidoids in concert. While we never see the band for more than a few moments at a time, the scenes inside the bar are great as they capture the look and feel of it wonderfully. In fact Edward Lachman's cinematography is one of the best things about the movie. He has captured the rundown feel of New York at the end of the late '70s perfectly with its dirty buildings, cracked sidewalks, and general air of abandonment. People may not remember, but there was a time in the mid-1970s when New York City came close to declaring bankruptcy, and the film captures the depression and decay of the city at the time.
As for the music in the film, snippets of four of Hell and The Voidoids' songs are played underneath much of the film's activity – with "Blank Generation" being used most often. I assume it was the director's not so subtle way of reminding us what the movie is supposedly about by playing the song as some sort of emphasis, but it starts to become a bit of a joke after a while. It's rather unfortunate, because Hell's music is very good, and a great example of the energy and intelligence that typified the best aspects of punk rock. However, here the music has been trivialized. The incidental music, on the other hand, is one of the other bright spots of the movie, as it works really well with the cinematography to create atmosphere and set the mood of the piece. It turns out it was one of the first soundtracks composed by future Oscar winner Elliot Goldenthal. I think it tells you something of the film's quality when the soundtrack is one of its most memorable parts, but it also says quite a bit about Goldenthal's abilities that he was able to create something as interesting as he did with so little to work with.
The real highlight of the DVD is the 45-minute interview with Richard Hell conducted by Luc Sante. In it, Hell is not only brutally honest about his opinion of the movie and his performance – he thought he wasn't very good as he was horribly self-conscious during the whole shoot – he talks openly and candidly about the whole process involved with making the film. Hell is an articulate and witty individual, and he gives us some interesting background as to what he was doing at the time the film was being made, and what was happening in New York City as well. However both he and Sante are very damning about the movie and director Ulli Lommel with one of the few positive comments Hell having to make about the movie being in reference to Andy Warhol's brief appearance in it as himself (Warhol was also an associate producer for the movie).
If you were thinking of picking up a copy of the newest DVD re-issue of Blank Generation because you were under the impression it was a concert film, or at least contained some good examples of Richard Hell and The Voidoids' material, you're going to be sadly disappointed. Actually you're going to be pretty disappointed in this movie no matter what reason you pick it up for. However, the interview with Richard Hell is great, the movie does recreate New York City of the late 1970s really well, and it contains some pretty cool footage of the interior of CBGBs – so it's not a total write-off. It's a far cry from being comparable in any shape or form to some of the great art that was being produced at the time, and is more an example of how even during periods of great creative outbursts there are bound to be a few duds.