Three to see at LFF if you like... punk and new wave music

Manish Agarwal recommends three hot tickets at the BFI London Film Festival: a film by an established director, a great debut and a wild card.

Manish Agarwal

The new film from an established director…

This Is Not Berlin

This Is Not Berlin (2019)

What’s it about?

It’s 1986, and while the rest of Mexico City watches the football World Cup, alienated 17-year-old Carlos is riding around town with his fight-starting schoolmates, who are fired up by Judas Priest’s blistering new wave of British heavy metal anthems. Prone to passing out during brawls, our shy protagonist soon discovers a different type of new wave at subterranean post-punk club Azteca: a heady neon underworld of fluid sexuality, drug-fuelled self-expression and bodypaint-based performance art.

Who made it?

This is the latest dramatic feature from filmmaker and musician Hari Sama, a polymath graduate of both Mexico City’s Center for Cinematographic Training (CCC) and its Musical Studies and Research Center (CIEM). One of the country’s most respected advertising directors, he shares screenwriting credit with Rodrigo Ordóñez and Max Zunino. You sense that this stylish and heartfelt film is a deeply personal trip down memory lane for all concerned – check the Proust quote that opens proceedings. 

What’s special about it?

Arriving at LFF following high-profile US festival slots, including Sundance’s world cinema competition and San Francisco’s LGBTQ+ bonanza Frameline, This Is Not Berlin unites universally resonant coming-of-age tropes with scenes of naked protest and political debate that are specific to Sama’s lovingly rendered queer youthquake. His electrifying direction is enhanced by the brilliant cast plus a black-nail-varnished, alternative 80s soundtrack to die for: Joy Division, Devo, Visage, Tones On Tail, Einstürzende Neubauten.

See this if you like…

The Doom Generation (Gregg Araki, 1995); Y tu mamá también (Alfonso Cuarón, 2001); Heartbeats (Xavier Dolan, 2010); Call Me by Your Name (Luca Guadagnino, 2017); being a goth in the summertime.

The breakthrough…

White Riot

White Riot (2019)

What’s it about?

Named after The Clash’s oft-misunderstood anthem, White Riot is a documentary about Rock Against Racism. RAR was a cultural campaign founded in 1976 to combat British neo-Nazi activity, prompted by blues bore Eric Clapton’s hypocritical support of racist Conservative MP Enoch Powell. Starting as a Hoxton fanzine, this DIY movement mushroomed into the grassroots coalition of punk and reggae musicians gathered for 1978’s massive antifascist carnival in Victoria Park, including X-Ray Spex, Steel Pulse and The Clash themselves. 

Who made it?

World premiering as part of LFF’s Documentary Competition, this is a riveting feature-length debut from director Rubika Shah, who’s expanded her 2017 short film White Riot: London to urgent, unsettling (the National Front rally footage may induce nausea) yet ultimately energising effect. Shah also previously made the celebratory short Let’s Dance: Bowie Down Under, which screened at LFF 2015. David Bowie appears in White Riot, too, saying some uncharacteristically stupid things (to be fair, his apologies were profuse).

What’s special about it?

It feels trite to say that this is topical, but given the resurgence of far-right hate groups we may as well state the obvious. The film functions as a multi-textured time capsule of a place that’s changed beyond recognition, yet still can’t admit its colonial shame. An emergency broadcast from a past not quite buried, fronted by the late Joe Strummer and his most emblematic of London bands, with their unique blend of cinematic cool and earnest fury.

See this if you like…

Babylon (Franco Rosso, 1980); Rude Boy (Jack Hazan and David Mingay, 1980); The Clash: Westway to the World (Don Letts, 2000); Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten (Julien Temple, 2007); the idea of music as a force for good.

The wild card…

The El Duce Tapes

The El Duce Tapes (2019)

What’s it about?

“Before the age of trolls there was a troll for the ages…” runs the tagline for this ingenious documentary about El Duce, deceased leader of The Mentors. Known locally for performing in executioner hoods, Seattle’s punk-metal provocateurs achieved a most mid-80s notoriety when pro-censorship politicians denounced their wilfully offensive lyrics in congress. The following decade saw their frontman make a memorable appearance on The Jerry Springer Show’s infamous ‘Shock Rock’ episode, alongside the hilarious GWAR.

Who made it?

Three directors are credited: Rodney Ascher, best known for Room 237 (LFF, 2012), his essential doc about The Shining; David Lawrence, who edited both this film and Leap of Faith, an exploration of The Exorcist that also screens in LFF’s Cult strand; and Ryan Sexton. The latter is a former daytime soap actor who found the singer born Eldon Hoke passed out in some bushes, and was sufficiently intrigued to spend two years filming him.

What’s special about it?

Sexton’s vast VHS archive – the titular tapes – forms a mesmerising basis for the trio’s immersive portrait of an artistic margin walker who briefly transcended obscurity by pushing the boundaries of taste, in a way that eerily prefigured our present. The film’s too smart to demand sympathy for El Duce, but you’ll still be fascinated by this notoriously inscrutable figure’s slide from unblinking satire – “I like President Bush because he’s a Nazi” – to tragic, alcoholic self-parody. 

See this if you like…

The Decline of Western Civilization and/or The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (both Penelope Spheeris, 1981 and 1988 respectively); GWAR: Phallus in Wonderland (Judas Bullhorn & Distortion Wells, 1992); Hated: GG Allin & The Murder Junkies (Todd Phillips, 1994); the idea of music as a vehicle for mischief.

Read more

  • BFI London Film Festival

    BFI London Film Festival

    We’re delighted to announce some great new additions to the line-up. Priority booking opens on Thu 19 Sep to Champions at 10:00 and to Members at...

Read more

Back to the top

See something different

Subscribe now for exclusive offers and the best of cinema.
Hand-picked.