If a scene happened thirty years ago and no one paid attention, should anyone care now? Two new documentaries make the case by covering bands not regularly associated with the infancy of American punk. Let Them Know: The Story of Youth Brigade and BYO Records is a fond reminiscence; You Weren’t There: A History of Chicago Punk 1977-1984 makes good on its title’s insular, accusatory tone. With the marquee bands of the era enshrined in boomer-like reverence, Let Them Know and You Weren’t There are in the double-bind of portraying lesser-known subjects as overlooked trailblazers without hallowing a decidedly checkered past.
And it’s a history that, at this point, has taken on a familiar hue: the halcyon days are short-lived, the club owners crooked, the bathrooms despicable, the cops assholes. It should be noted that punks back then were the real deal, though remembering the fury and danger of the early days is not quite as fond an exercise for those on the wrong end of a police officer’s baton.
Let Them Know follows the Stern brothers as they form Youth Brigade, a Southern California band that recorded a handful of seminal albums in the early 1980s along with starting the Better Youth Organization. BYO, described vaguely as a group “coming together to promote positive things we do on our own,” began by promoting shows but eventually evolved into a record label that went on to release bands such as 7 Seconds and SNFU. The four Stern brothers are intriguing personalities but director Jeff Alulis seems flummoxed by their complexity and inconsistencies and commentators scrunch their noses at what they perceive as Youth Brigade’s misfires. It’s a particularly unfortunate angle considering Youth Brigade has not been fully active for decades and BYO’s most prominent contemporary contributions are a punk rock bowling competition and a well-received NOFX/Rancid split, both of which serve as this inconsistently paced story’s happy ending. Alulis adheres to the Michael Moore template of documentary film-making, with its slick cartoon-ish imagery and kitschy 1950s footage, a trick that wouldn’t feel so forced if Paul Rachman hadn’t pilfered similar techniques to enliven 2006’s American Hardcore.
But where the middling American Hardcore takes on too much and Let Them Know lacks focus, You Weren’t There is a clinically thorough look at the Chicago punk scene. Breaking the social contract of keeping punk documentaries under 90 minutes, You Weren’t There methodically chronicles the Chicago punk scene of the late `70s and early `80s in agonizing detail. Rather than make false gestures at a cohesive narrative, directors Joe Losurdo and Christina Tillman dedicate segmented chapters to 14 of the city’s major players. The film’s almost nonexistent coverage of Big Black is probably an intentional demonstration that there is more to Chicago than Steve Albini’s big mouth but glossing over such an important band is unforgivable in the face of a running time topping 120 minutes.
If Alulis’ treatment of the Stern brothers is one of great admiration, Losurdo and Tillman’s more even-handed approach takes on a didacticism that expunges all of the electricity from the music it hopes to exalt. When the films capture sparks of the era’s ingenuity, such as Ian MacKaye’s explanation of how bands scammed corporate credit cards to book tours (or footage of Tutu & The Pirates playing “I Want to be a Janitor” with a plunger and toilet seat guitar), they fall back just as quickly into rote chronological explanations and griping. Neither documentary does justice to punk’s fleeting, scrappy genius.