Suburbia (1983) – Blu-Ray Review

Suburbia was Penelope Spheeris’ second feature-length film as a director, and her first narrative feature. Her first film is still probably her bestThe Decline of Western Civilization, which is about the early days of the L.A. punk scene with bands like The Germs, X, Fear and even lesser-known acts like Catholic Discipline. Suburbia takes stories she heard in the punk scene and beyond, and crafts them into a narrative around this group of disaffected youth who create their own surrogate family in a dilapidated house on the outskirts of Interstate 605 in the greater Los Angeles area.

Spheeris, who had already completely engulfed herself in the punk scene in L.A., decided to cast real punk kids instead of trying to get actors to “play punk,” because that rarely works. Valley Girl, made around the same time, also escapes this fate because Nicolas Cage was actually into punk and going to punk shows in L.A. That gave it a certain level of authenticity that its syrupy Romeo & Juliet redo story otherwise wouldn’t have. Most of the punk kids in Suburbia wouldn’t go on to have film careers, but Chris Pedersen did continue to dabble in acting throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, with bit parts in Point Break and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. The most notable cast member, however, is Flea (or, as he is credited in the film, Michael B. The Flea) and was very much living the lifestyle depicted in the film—he was a street kid who was active in the L.A. punk scene, and right around the time the film was made, he started playing bass in Fear, a pastime he would continue with until that other band he was in… Red Hot Chilli Peppers… released their debut album.

Roger Corman, who made perhaps the first Punkploitation film, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, coughed up some dough for the production. He was relatively hands-off, but in true Corman fashion, he told Spheeris that she had to have some good old sex and/or violence around every ten minutes. If you watch the film closely, Spheeris reshaped her script around Corman’s mandate, from the new wave girl getting her clothes ripped off to the various fights the punks get themselves into. Spheeris was more interested in making an anthropological look into the lives of the kids she met in the punk scene, and for the most part it’s a successful effort. The arc of the character Sheila (Jennifer Clay) is utterly tragic, and then there’s the messy household situation of Joe Schmo (Wade Walston) after his dad leaves his mom for another man. Spheeris would go on to make the third, and to date final, The Decline of Western Civilization film, which takes this street anthropology approach to the extreme. In that film, she is filming kids who grew up watching Suburbia and decided to live that life.

Suburbia remains a true cult classic it may not quite have the gonzo madness of Repo Man, which is still the highwater mark of both Alex Cox’s career and punk rock on screen, but it’s a smart, thoughtful movie (even if the cop step-dad character is far too sympathetic.) The concert scenes are particularly memorable, especially T.S.O.L. at the tail end of their original line-up when Jack Grisham was the singer (he rejoined in ‘99), and D.I. performing their ridiculously catchy “Richard Hung Himself.” There’s also the original version of the Vandals, who imploded by the time the film came out. The film itself inspired perhaps the best of the Pet Shop Boys’ run of singles in the mid to late ‘80s with the song titled “Suburbia,” and an accompanying music video that took some visual cues from the film, mainly shots of suburban L.A. and dogs.

The UK Blu-Ray package for Suburbia is the definitive release, and that’s just for keeping the original poster art for the inner case cover. The US Shout Factory release has a badly put-together cover of some skinhead punk in front of their beat up car—it’s horribly composited in Photoshop. The disc here is mostly the Shout disc, but you do get a new interview Penelope Spheeris, who is no holds barred as she goes off on the Pet Shop Boys for stealing her title and the film’s plot for their song, and her frustrations about working the film industry. She claims that she hadn’t heard the Pet Shop Boys song till the night before the interview because she “doesn’t listen to disco.” The other new extra is a booklet with essays from Jon Towlson and Barry Forshaw. The old extras are one solo commentary track from Spheeris and another group track featuring Spheeris, producer Bert Dragin and actress Jennifer Clay; the theatrical trailer; TV spots and a stills gallery. 

★★★★

Ian Schultz

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