Watch the Tunes: Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer

On December 2nd 2016 » By Chris Lay

There is an absurdly vast selection of music movies and documentaries available on Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and on and on and on. But it’s hard to tell which ones are actually worth your 100 minutes. Watch the Tunes will help you pick what music doc is worth your time every weekend. This week’s edition covers Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, which is streaming over on Netflix.

Vladimir Putin and Russia were hot topics heading into the U.S. election. Hillary Clinton outright called out Donald Trump during the third presidential debate as being nothing more than Putin’s puppet, to which Trump memorably, and awkwardly, shot back “You’re the puppet!” In the weeks since Trump won, lots of fingers are pointing in Moscow’s direction as the root of hacked emails that Julian Assange’s Wikileaks rolled out across the American electorate in the runup, possibly swaying enough voters in key swing states away from Clinton. Just a few days ago none other than South Carolina Senator and former Republican presidential candidate Lindsey Graham called on Congress to investigate the possible meddling in our election by the Kremlin. In the midst of this apparent return to Cold War era “red scare” politics, Trump’s incoming administration is squadding up with Russia and a lot of concerned people are contemplating how best to protest against the conservative agenda he will easily push through the Republican majority House and Senate. In this political climate, Pussy Riot’s documentary from 2013, A Punk Prayer, offers timely takes on both Trump’s new best bud Putin, and suggests a cautiously optimistic route towards functional ways to protest against another potentially autocratic regime.

First, let’s get this out of the way: Pussy. Riot. What a great goddamn name for a band. Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains, Black Flag… Like all punk bands worth a damn, Pussy Riot hit the ground running with a perfect moniker that also looks great spray painted onto a wall or sharpied onto a T-shirt. Since their founding in 2011, the group had the most legit claim to normalizing the word “pussy,” right up until that fateful Access Hollywood tape dropped of course. With their neon colored balaclavas and bright summer dresses they looked cool as hell and Pussy Riot’s plight quickly became the cause célèbre for a number of big name musicians. For lots of folks who didn’t follow the details of their case though, that’s where their awareness of Pussy Riot might stop. For them, A Punk Prayer fills in the gaps.

Formed as a reaction to Putin’s reelection in the fall of 2011, the loose collective of a dozen or so members started staging highly confrontational guerrilla protests around Moscow. Six months later, three of the group’s members, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, would be arrested following a performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior they had titled “Punk Prayer - Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!” that was intended to call out church leaders for their support of Putin. So far as acts of resistance and dissent go, it was pretty damn ballsy, and they made the most of it by posting video of the performance and subsequent arrest by the end of that same day.

“Art is not a mirror to reflect the world, but a hammer with which to shape it.” So says Bertolt Brecht in a quote that opens the film, but I think the whole story here could be better summed up in another quote, this one from Obi Wan Kenobi: “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” While the subtleties of their Cathedral of Christ the Savior show were harder to grasp (the film does an excellent job breaking them down, FYI) just about everyone outside of Putin’s circle of influencers, including a number of vocal Orthodox Christians, could tell that the punishment of two years imprisonment didn’t match the crime and sure enough all that keeping Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina, and Samutsevich under lock and key did was give them a bigger platform as martyrs.

While there are no direct interviews with the band members to be found in A Punk Prayer, there’s more than enough footage of the three women taken from their trial, as well as shots of the group rehearsing their Cathedral appearance, to make up for their absence. To get around the lack of involvement by three main faces of Pussy Riot (two were still in prison while the film was being made), Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin take the interesting approach of tracing the activists’ pasts through interviews with their parents, all of whom seem pretty awesome and supportive if not outwardly proud of the bold statements their kids are out there making.

One thing that’s worth noting: There’s sadly just not much music to be found from Pussy Riot. There is no soundtrack for A Punk Prayer, the discography section of their Wikipedia consists solely of “needs expansion,” and the only widely available audible document of theirs (or at least one member using the name) is a new three-song EP that is already taking on The Donald. I’m not saying that they aren’t a band, but as someone who is writing this up for a website dedicated to covering music-related topics, it’s impossible to not get the distinct feeling that the actual sound of Pussy Riot rates a distant second to the physical and political presence of the group.

I don’t think that Putin was all that scared of these colorful women in and of themselves, or the music they made, but the potent vein of Punk Rock spirit that they tapped into was a powerful mobilizing force that we may be seeing more and more of in the coming years in our own country. I don’t know if Pussy Riot’s brand of performance-art-as-protest is what’s gonna end up working on this side of the world, but it’s certainly a decent place to jump off from as inspiration.

The best damn record club is the best damn gift.

Chris Lay

Chris Lay

Chris Lay is a freelance writer, archivist, and record store clerk living in Madison, WI. The very first CD he bought for himself was the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack when he was twelve and things only got better from there.

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