Punk rock is alive and well and living in Los Angeles in “Los Punks: We Are All We Have.” Photographer Angela Boatwright’s first documentary feature is a bracing look at a thriving underground of punk bands and backyard-party concerts virtually unknown outside the city’s Latino communities. The result should do well in digital platforms and music-focused fest berths, with potential for small-scale niche theatrical gigs.
East L.A., South Central, Watts and Boyle Heights are places where many upscale Los Angelenos fear to tread, but the poverty and crime in those neighborhoods has helped foster the (relatively) safe haven of a floating punk rock scene far removed from the worlds of recording contracts and backstage riders. Sure, the mosh pit can get rough, drunken fights might break out, and the cops (not to mention those omnipresent helicopters) often pay a visit. But the backyard shows that entrepreneurs like 25 year-old booker/promoter Nacho Corrupted (also lead singer for Corrupted Youth) regularly stage wherever they can are a sort of lifeline for musicians and fans alike who need an outlet from external stresses.
“Every day I struggle with depression and anger … the band is really the only thing that’s keeping me going … It’s the only real consistent part of my life” says Alex Pedorro, who wrote many of his band Psyk Ward’s lyrics while institutionalized. Others we meet include April Desmadre, already a formidable event organizer at age 15; Gary Alvarez, whose band Rhythmic Asylum offers some last youthful abandon before he heads to law school; and Jennie Oi, a perpetually smiling fangirl with a birth defect (she was born without one arm) who doesn’t feel marginalized in this welcoming milieu.
Boatwright captures the scene’s sense of inclusiveness, but her viewpoint is embedded enough that it never conveys how that scene is viewed from the outside. Do the larger Latino communities they live in view these punks as an aberration? A cultural blight? A positive influence? We have no idea. That the protagonists often live in problematic circumstances is underlined by talk of broken homes, not to mention their blase response to yet another fatal area shooting or stabbing. (They’re more put out when noise complaints shut down backyard parties, as often happens.)
Focused on the here and now, the pic only briefly glances backward toward the lineage of Latino punk bands, later stopping briefly to pay homage to New York-born veterans the Casualties. Some outfits heard from here sound like they’d reward further listening, while others offer just generic screamo; in any case, Boatwright is more interested in capturing the milieu as a whole than detailing individual musical personalities. “Los Punks” also could have used a bit more narrative structure — we’re introduced to a lot of people, but it feels like there’s so little follow-up that the movie ends up more a patchwork of verite vignettes than something with any kind of storytelling arc.
That said, the energy and good vibes on display will make “Los Punks” a pleasure for anyone who doesn’t bridle at fast/loud music. Camerawork and other contributions are above average while remaining true to the raw aesthetic of the bands heard here.