I didn’t like SLC Punk! the first time I saw it.
To be fair, there wasn’t much that I liked in 1999. I was 15, a freshman in high school, and had recently decided that I wanted to get into punk music—the perfect amalgam of shitty teen petulance. I lived in Park City, Utah, probably the most affluent city in the state, which is just 20 miles east of Salt Lake City, and home to the Sundance Film Festival. It was definitely the type of place where one could suddenly decide to “get into punk” on a whim, as if it were a new type of yacht or lifestyle magazine.
It’s easy to fall for punk in an environment like that, and hard I fell. I remember spending that first year of high school enclosed in a pair of headphones, feeling the hum of whichever Epitaph and Fat Wreck Chords release was spinning in the Discman I held in my hand (it’s a damn shame that kids today will never understand the beauty of 10-second anti-skip protection). I drew anarchist A’s on my binders. I quoted Bad Religion in my English assignments. I bought a Che Guevara flag! I was a fucking punk.
So, when I finally saw SLC Punk!, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. The film seemed specifically (and weirdly) catered to my new lifestyle: I was a punk! I lived in Salt Lake City (well, SLC adjacent). And, well, that’s about it. But at that age, the potential to feel seen like that is a profound experience.
But the movie didn’t feel right. I couldn’t get past the late-90s sheen, which felt very punk via Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I wasn’t into Matthew Lillard’s manic performance, nor did I like the fact that it premiered (on January 22, 1999) at the Sundance Film Festival —perhaps the least punk thing in existence (however, I did see John Lydon boo the Sex Pistols documentary The Filth and the Fury at its Sundance premier in 2000, and that was pretty punk).
Ultimately, I didn’t see me in SLC Punk!, and that’s what stung the most.
But time has a funny way of making things in the past seem more punk, and now, 20 years after its release, I think SLC Punk! is kind of brilliant.
In theory, punk is about progression, moving forward, and radicalism, but anyone who’s been a part of a punk scene knows that it actually gets off on looking backward: what the kids are listening to now isn’t punk, bands will never be as good as their first album, and so on. I liked them before they got big is not a sign of musical prowess, but a mating call with the scene from people trying to hold onto the good old days.
Which is why looking back on a 20-year-old film—set in 1985—is like a crust punk’s dried wet dream. SLC Punk! is basically a double shot of nostalgia (or two 1.5 oz measured pours, because we’re talking about Utah here).
Angela Brown, who for the past 18 years has served as executive editor for SLUG Magazine, Utah’s punkest publication, remembers watching the Sundance premiere on a fold out screen in the Park City High School gym.
“It was sold out, jam-packed,” Brown says. “The audience just ate it up. It got a standing ovation.”
Appeasing a film festival audience is one thing, but Brown also recalls the anger among those who were part of the scene that SLC Punk! set out to portray—which, honestly, was small enough in the 80s that every on-screen character could’ve been a stand-in from director James Merendino’s social circles.
“The old-school people, a lot of them were very upset about it,” Brown says. “They thought [the filmmakers] got it completely wrong. It was their childhood, but a fictional portrayal of it.”
“I think it’s sometimes hard for people in Salt Lake to support success,” Brown continues. “It was like, You’ve taken our punk story and sold out with it.”
“That aside it’s a really great ride, a really fun film,” Brown says. “It portrayed how a lot of people got out and became adults. It’s so easy in your late teens and early 20s to just be ‘Fuck authority!’ and all you achieve is this punk fashion. You have to find your balance, right?”
“The film is total fiction and has very little to do with the way things were,” Aldine Strychnine tells me over Facebook Messenger. Strychnine sang for legendary Utah punk band Maimed for Life in the 80s, and who claims SLC Punk!’s Heroin Bob was based on his bandmate of the same nomenclature. “In the movie Heroin Bob is straight edge....[but] I can assure you, he was called [Heroin Bob] for a reason!”
Despite the old-school punks dismissing the film upon qualms at its initial release, the film has aged very well. Watching it as an adult, it’s easy to see what a wonderfully weird and bonkers experience SLC Punk! truly is. It’s a movie full of fourth-wall breaks, strange narrative diversions, non-sequiturs, and classic scenes (driving to Wyoming to buy beer is still a very real thing for Salt Lake City kids). Characters are introduced (literally, by Matthew Lillard talking to the viewer) for single scenes and then dismissed. The episodic structure feels more in line with director Penelope Spheeris’s subversive cult classics (Wayne’s World and Suburbia) than the Hollywood-baiting films that usually emerge out of Sundance. Hell, I even like Matthew Lillard’s performance as Stevo now, even though I’m still weirded out by his crying scene at the end, only because it’s so intense and tonally different than the rest of the film.
And those who grow up in Utah and leave the state find that the movie follows them around like a benevolent hound. “Have you seen SLC Punk!?” was the second-most asked question people asked me when I went to college in California (the first is always “Are you Mormon?”). For a state known for a lot of shittiness, SLC Punk! has become become a badge of pride.
“We were young and a little naive,” Strychnine says. “Thought we could change the world. The thing is, I think we actually did change our part of it to some extent.”
“I think people have a different way of looking at their rebellion,” Brown says. “Back then, it was very serious. People would take it so seriously... But now you can walk down the street with purple hair and no one blinks at you. I love the fact that alternative culture has essentially been broken wide open. Everyone’s so accepting and tolerant for that. Honestly, that’s what everyone was fighting for.”
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