‘D.O.A.: A Right of Passage’ is a Messy, Essential Document of Punk

The documentary D.O.A. was filmed almost guerrilla style, funded by High Times magazine, with director Lech Kowalski following the Sex Pistols on the doomed 1978 tour of America. The band didn’t want him there, Johnny Rotten was suspicious of High Times, and as it runes out, the Pistols would fall apart after just seven gigs. Despite all that, Kowalski captured an important moment in rock history and peppered it with a few other notable acts.

For those who don’t know the story, the Sex Pistols, for all their influence on the punk scene, were put together, boy-band style, by clothing shop owner and sometime rock band manager Malcolm McLaren. McLaren had previously managed the New York Dolls before they fell apart. He saw the burgeoning punk scene in New York City and his shop, Sex, was ahead of the curve on punk fashion. He knew a rock band would be the perfect set of mannequins to model and advertise his clothing and got his hooks into some local hoods.

Guitarist Steve Jones, drummer Paul Cook, singer Johnny Rotten, and bass player Glen Matlock—who was fated to be kicked out after writing a good chunk of the debut album and replaced with a walking train wreck named Sid Vicious. The band toured with other up and coming punk groups The Clash, The Damned, and Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers on the Anarchy Tour in 1976. They signed with and were dumped from a couple of record labels, they cursed on live television, and they got in trouble for releasing an anti-Queen Elizabeth song called “God Save The Queen,” which went to number one on the charts, but their name would not be printed, so the spot was just blank.

In 1978 they went to America and stood up Lorne Michaels with their SNL appearance (which Elvis Costello happily took over and promptly received a lifetime ban himself). They also avoided every major city and played out-of-the-way redneck dumps instead, until they wound up in San Francisco, the hippy capital of the world, and played an uninspired, boring, embarrassing mess of a show, punctuated by Rotten’s snide question, “Ever get the feeling you been cheated?” Later that October, Sid allegedly stabbed his girlfriend Nancy Spungen to death in their Chelsea Hotel room in New York City. While awaiting trial in February ’79, he overdosed on heroin, supplied to him by his mother.

In their wake, the Pistols left behind one official album, a muddled excuse for a punk Hard Day’s Night-style movie called The Great Rock and Roll Swindle, and a cash-in live reunion album, with Matlock back in the band, as they couldn’t resurrect Sid to squeeze an extra buck out of tour profits. Their album, Never Mind the Bollocks: Here’s The Sex Pistols is actually a classic album: I still listen to it regularly. It still has the power to shock with strong batch of legitimate punk anthems.

Lech Kowalski knew the Sex Pistols coming to America was an important cultural event that needed to be documented and he hit the road with a handheld camera and captured all that he could. He captured Christian protesters and angry Texas rednecks, as well as the emerging punk scene in America’s out of the way corners. He mixed this footage with footage of other bands like X-Ray Spex, Generation X (Billy Idol’s early group), Rich Kids (Matlock’s post Pistols band), Sham 69, and the Dead Boys, as well as the rise and fall of a band called Terry and the Idiots. The end result is a mixed bag.

Much of the Pistols footage is great as is most of the other bands. X-Ray Spex is a treasure, but the Dead Boys footage is so bad it looks like Kowalski was intentionally trying to make them look bad. When the film works, it’s brilliant, but it meanders a lot and the one interview he got with an actual member of the band is nothing short of tragic. Kowalski got an infamous in bed interview with Sid and Nancy, where Nancy did most of the talking while Sid dozed off. And considering its only a short time before they both die at 20 and 21 years old, there’s nothing entertaining about their clownish behavior.

For any gripes I have, D.O.A. is an indispensable document of a time that history will never repeat. This documentary has been out of print for far too long and MVD has put together a beautiful package, featuring a feature-length making-of documentary, a 12-page booklet, and a two-sided poster. The footage has been re-mastered and the live footage of most of the bands look and sound fantastic.

You can purchase D.O.A.: A Right of Passage from MVD Entertainment.

1/12 – Tulsa, OK – Circle Cinema
1/12-1/14 – Seattle, WA – Northwest Film Forum
1/15 – San Francisco, CA – Alamo Drafthouse
1/15 – Denver, CO – Alamo Sloans Lake
1/18 – Louisville, KY – Speed Museum

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