Punk The Capital: Building a Sound Movement is a documentary about the early days of the Washington D.C. punk scene from roughly 1976 to 1983, a period that saw the demise of Minor Threat, perhaps the best-known band to come out of the scene at that time. The documentary ends with a clip of the band Rites of Spring, so it doesn’t cover “Revolution Summer,” the summer of ‘85 when bands and activists in D.C. actively removed a lot of the machismo that had invaded their scene. The summer included debates on feminism, race (Washington D.C. is a majority African-American city) and a very famous protest at the South African embassy against apartheid took place. Those events would became a catalyst for everything from Riot Grrrl to the earliest versions of emo and simply establishing what values the punk scene actually stood for.
The documentary itself isn’t the most impressive technically: it follows the visual pattern of talking heads interspersed with footage and other archival material. You certainly get a chunk about the hardcore scene that Bad Brains kicked off there in 1979, but perhaps the most interesting part of the film is the earlier scene of bands like The Slickee Boys, White Boy and The Nurses. D.C. would become known primarily for hardcore punk, but like every other punk scene it started out as more musically diverse than just trashy hardcore stuff. Initially it was more art-punk or power pop, like Tommy Keene’s first band The Razz, and mainly centred around Georgetown University and its radio station WGTB, along with whatever venues they would be allowed to play at. One of the most interesting bands on show are The Enzymes, who were an all-black art-punk band who were also quite militant socialists—they never released a single record.
The interviews are perfectly fine. Sometimes you wish they had more solo interviewees—there are too many group interviews at times. All the people you would expect are interviewed, so there’s Henry Rollins, Ian MacKaye, H.R. and other Bad Brains members, and Cynthia Connolly who wrote and photographed the seminal book on the scene, Banned in D.C. The archival material is fantastic: Rollins, MacKaye and several others are total pack rats, so they had a wealth of material for the filmmakers to use. There is some fantastic early Bad Brains footage, from before they grew out their dreads and still wore cool new wave suits. The documentary doesn’t tackle the Bad Brains’ notorious homophobia, although there are plenty of places they could’ve mentioned it, especially in contrast to what was from the get-go one of the more accepting scenes.
Overall it’s a decent documentary on a punk scene that had its shit together more than most. At one point in the documentary Jello Biafra of The Dead Kennedys pops up and says the D.C. scene was the only other punk scene he was somewhat jealous of. Getting on to 40 years later, D.C. still has a vibrant music scene, and that’s almost exclusively down to the work everybody featured here did all those years ago, and are still doing for the most part. However, the documentary doesn’t really go into the connection between the go-go (a kind of early version of hip-hop) and punk scenes, which was integral, although the punk kids were more into go-go than the other way around.
The extras on the DVD are really good as well: there is a great deleted scene about the legendary gig The Cramps did at Georgetown University very early on, which would be the first ever punk show for both Ian MacKaye and Henry Rollins (Ian supplies a bootleg recording to accommodate the fantastic photos). There is more stuff on the Slickee Boys, a segment on the hardcore band Void, and an interesting segment that on the ’60s garage band The Hangman and their connection one of the best bands to come out of the D.C. hardcore scene, Scream.