Dramatic Underscoring: Suburbia

On April 5, 2016

Dramatic Underscoring is our regular column by Marcella Hemmeter reviewing soundtrack albums from movies current and forgotten. This edition covers 1983's Suburbia. 

Suburbia (1983) is one of the first movies to portray punks not just as angry-at-society assholes or mohawk and leather caricatures, but as real kids who are figuring shit out. No, they’re not all misunderstood-- some of them are jerks-- but as with any ‘scene’ you’ve got the good and the bad. The film is about teenage runaways who for various reasons band together and form a sort of family, calling themselves The Rejected (T.R. for short), squatting in an abandoned home, going to shows and pissing off the nearby community (also robbing their garages for food). Their lifestyle is threatened by conflicts with resentful neighbors that escalate into tragedy. Oh, and don’t forget the pack of wild killer dogs. But better than all that is a very strong soundtrack that features punk rock performances, and a great score which further elevates this low-budget genre romp.

Written and directed by Penelope Spheeris (The Decline of Western Civilization and Wayne’s World) and executive produced by Roger Corman and Bert Dragin, Suburbia made the film festival rounds in 1983 before getting a theatrical release the following year. Spheeris chose real punks and other kids, rather than experienced actors, which adds to the documentary-like style of the film. Look for Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers in his first film role as Razzle. It’s one of those early ‘80s movies that didn’t do so well when released but has since become a cult favorite. Yes, there are some cringe-worthy moments and dialogue. Case in point, one of the runaways is a guy who can’t handle his father’s homosexuality. This and some of the language may get some backlash but even today there are people who struggle with acceptance. Back then it was even worse, not to mention that the punk scene isn’t exactly a picture of universal progressiveness, so this backstory actually makes the viewer think a bit about the choice to run away. For some of these kids it’s abusive or neglectful parents, avoiding child protective services, etc., and for some others it’s an inability (or unwillingness) to accept or be accepted by their home-life.

The film features four concert performances, each introduced by a bit of dialogue from the movie. Even though there are only four songs, each represents a pivotal moment in the film. The soundtrack opens with D.I.’s performance of “Richard Hung Himself,” heard at a punk show where we find Evan, a teenage boy who we saw earlier in the movie get berated by his alcoholic mother. It’s appropriate that this song, about a guy who kills himself after taking too many drugs, plays during Evan’s introduction to this punk world while his drink is spiked by Keef, a T.R. kid. The show ends early and Evan hooks up with Jack, who takes him to pick up another kid, Joe, then off they go to T.R. House where Evan and Joe are introduced to the others while The Vandals’ “Urban Struggle” plays in the background. If you’re wondering why this song isn’t on the soundtrack, get in line. It’s awesome with the slow intro as Evan and Joe are glancing around at everyone and then it crashes into that fast beat just as Razzle slingshots a cockroach dead, breaking the ice. The next songs on the soundtrack (“Wash Away” and “Darker My Love”) are performed by T.S.O.L. and are essentially melodic love songs which match with the kids’ mood, feeling happy with their new family and with their pranks on the neighboring community.

The mood changes with The Vandals’ “The Legend of Pat Brown.” Having lost one of their own to suicide and clashed with her family and others at her funeral, they go to this show which is decidedly more raucous with Jack joining in on the moshing. The aggression and anger of the song highlights how the kids are feeling about everything that’s happening around them. Next up are the terrific score pieces from musician Alex Gibson. Favorites include “Punk Parade” which highlights the classic scene of T.R. kids walking towards the camera in a slow-motion shot and “Suburbia” which is played when Evan first leaves home and again after the tragic ending at T.R. House.

Warts and all, Suburbia is a compelling snapshot of the suburban punk scene that, along with its soundtrack, you won’t be able to get out of your head. If you enjoy angry or melodic punk, this is for you. If you enjoy instrumental post-punk mood pieces, this is for you. It’s like getting a tutorial on the early stages of punk in Orange County and L.A. and will have you digging for those early records. From the dark “Richard Hung Himself” opener to the guitar beats of Gibson’s score you will wish you had the money for the vinyl pressing (last check on Discogs a NM was going for $60). Reissue, anyone?

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