East Los Angeles's DIY Shows Prove Punk Is Alive and Well
Every year, like clockwork, some jaded music writer pens a screed about the latest irrefutable piece of evidence that punk is dead.
Los Punks: We Are All We Have, by filmmaker Angela Boatwright, is documentary proof that the scene is actually thriving—it just depends on where you look. Boatwright’s film offers as a vivid example the DIY punk movement exploding all over South Los Angeles, at backyard shows in places like Watts, South Central and East L.A.
Forty years after L.A. birthed the Germs, X and Black Flag, a new crop of overwhelmingly Latino and Chicano bands are taking inspiration from a long line of punk forbearers (NYC’s the Casualties are an oft-cited favorite) and what one singer calls “la tristeza—the sadness of living in the hood.” Boatwright’s film is vaguely reminiscent of the 2003 documentary Afro-Punk, which highlighted black punk rockers and their long-standing history in the scene. Except Los Punks, from the upstart promoters to the players, are all folks of color who have made a homegrown scene of their very own.
Amidst footage of the shows, Boatwright interweaves the stories of the South Central scene from up-close, offering a look at their lives from every angle. April, who’s only 15, puts on shows and gives the money she makes to her struggling mother. Gary Alvarez, who perfectly articulates how the music gives voice to the oppressed, does double time as lead singer of Rhythmic Asylum and law student. Alex, vocalist for Psyk Ward, finds relief from his depression through punk, and surprisingly, cooking. And Nacho, singer of Corrupted Youth, has tirelessly promoted shows since he was a teen, becoming a backbone of the scene and a key reason for its existence and growth.
Los Punks premiered at the 2016 Slamdance festival, and had its New York City debut at the House of Vans, followed by live performances by Age of Fear, South Central Riot Squad and locals the Casualties. Via Facebook, I chatted with Boatwright about the film, the scene and what she hopes people take from it.
Kali Holloway: You were a fan of punk rock before you started filming the movie, and there’s always a punk scene happening somewhere. What, in particular, made you want to document this scene?
Angela Boatwright: The number of young people at backyard shows was just astonishing to me. It's not uncommon to see 100 to 200 kids at any given show. And a lot of people at the shows wear T-shirts and patches from the local backyard bands. People within the scene supporting each other's music, I love that.
KH: There are a few scenes where the cops raid shows, and because these are punk shows filled with young people of color, I found myself particularly worried about what the outcome might be. Did you ever have that concern?
AB: Yes, of course, I want the punks to be safe at all times. I have seen cops at shows with guns drawn, or on one occasion cops arrived with weaponry meant to shoot beanbags and other "less lethal" ammunition. I personally never witnessed the police being physically aggressive to the punks. However, I've been told that it definitely happens. I have to be aware that my having a camera, and my being white, changes the situation entirely. Especially if I'm there with a camera crew. I've asked punks if my presence has affected the way they are treated by the police and so far, they've all said yes it has.
KH: At the Q&A following the New York premiere on May 26, you and some of the folks from bands in the film talked about how you’re really close, like family now. There’s nothing that brings more suspicion to an underground, insular music scene than somebody showing up with a camera and asking questions. How hard was it to get close to people?
AB: Everyone was different. Some people really wanted to be documented and some people weren't interested at all. In terms of getting close with people, I think my knowledge of aggressive music and my sense of humor played a huge role.
KH: There’s so many interesting people in the film, with shared experiences yet totally different stories. How did you figure out who would be your primary subjects, and to offer such a fleshed-out look at their lives?
AB: We wanted to showcase a wide variety of people within the scene and it wasn't difficult—everyone in the scene is so awesome and distinct. The scene is full of dynamic humans with amazing stories. I'm personally fascinated by everyone's stories—I like to get to know people in general.
Timing played a big role as well. Who was at the shows I attended, and in Gary's case, he approached me at a show, asked me questions about what we were doing and expressed interest in being involved.
KH: I think there’s a lot to be taken from the film, but wonder what you, as the filmmaker, hope people take away?
AB: I honestly don't know. I'd love to continue to explore similar punk scenes in other countries. The punk and metal communities are massive internationally.
KH: Where will the film be next and what are all the ways people can see it?
Los Punks just came out on iTunes! Also we will be screening at Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn on May 31; Punk Rock Bowling in Asbury Park, New Jersey, June 10; and SF Indie Film Festival on June 11.
To learn more about Los Punks to find screenings, check out the film website.