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Film Review: ‘Turn It Around: The Story of East Bay Punk’

Variety logo Variety 6/2/2017 Dennis Harvey

By now rivaling Bloomsbury and the Beats as the Most Exhaustively Chronicled Artistic Movement Ever, punk gets yet another regional recap in the documentary “Turn It Around.” Yet these nearly three hours devoted to the East Bay scene and 924 Gilman Street collective, which famously gave the world such breakout acts as Green Day and Rancid, seem to speed by about as fast as a 7″ thrash single.

Corbett Redford’s film channels and sustains the energy of restless youth while communicating the distinctive qualities of a community that carried collectivist 1960s ideals into a new generation, even as it rejected any vestige of their hippie parents’ music. Following its opening-night premiere at SF DocFest, “Turn” opens a week’s run June 2 at the same Alamo Drafthouse venue, with other cities and variably scaled dates following over the summer — some in tandem with its Green Day executive producers’ concert tour.

After a terrific cartoon credits sequence (Rancid co-founder Tim Armstrong serves as director of animation), we take a brief tour through familiar images of the San Francisco Bay Area as a traditional stronghold for rebellion, the punk movement’s initial rise and its early local days in San Francisco. (Those bands get their own documentary, “Buried in the Mix,” which closes this year’s Docfest.) Across the bay, an equivalency of punk bands was slower to take root, in part because there were no dedicated performance spaces like in San Francisco.

That changed when some grownups led by Tim Yohannan of Maximumrocknroll (a local radio showcase turned hugely influential zine) found an available warehouse space in a West Berkeley industrial area. From the start, 924 Gilman Street was a collective endeavor, with volunteers doing the necessary remodeling to make it a performance venue. A no-alcohol, all-ages policy made kids a clamorous voice in policy decisions as well as patronage. Opening at the end of 1986, the club rapidly became a social and artistic focus for youth not just from Berkeley and Oakland, but far-flung ’burbs like Pinole, El Sobrante and Rodeo. The spirit was freewheeling and inclusive in nearly every way — though at one point the community did physically repel an invasion of skinheads, who’d been attracted by the hardcore punk bands but stuck around simply to pick fights.

Bills could be wildly diverse, though some musical throughline could be found in defining early units like the fabled if short-lived Operation Ivy (whose leading members later formed Rancid) and Neurosis, as well as such lesser-remembered but intriguing acts as Crimpshrine, Sweet Baby Jesus, Yeastie Girlz and Blatz. Homocore and Riot Grrl bands found natural berth here. In 1987, Lookout Records began documenting the scene, releasing records that in the early/mid-’90s fostered a pop-punk boom — one that, to the chagrin of many Gilman purists, would lead to major-label signings and huge sales for a select very few.

“Turn It Around” pretty much ends with that feeding frenzy circa 1994, which ended Gilman Street’s first era. (Yohannan wouldn’t even book eventual juggernaut Green Day in their infancy, pronouncing them “too poppy” for his orthodox punk tastes. He more or less left Gilman St. after forcing a brief, controversial club closure in 1988, dying of cancer a decade later.)

A “no major label” rule that first banned A&R types then extended to bands themselves, as not just Green Day but Rancid, Jawbreaker and others hit the big time. Accusations of “sellout” and “betrayal” were inevitably hurled at these Gilman graduates. But time heals all (well, nearly all) wounds, and Gilman lives on, and the venue still operates on a collective basis for the benefit of new members for whom those acts probably seem as hoary a local tradition as the Grateful Dead did to ’80s punks.

All this should by any rights get monotonous stretched over 158 minutes. But somehow it doesn’t, paying tribute not only to a complicated story and lively interviewees but also to editor (and DP) Greg Schneider’s propulsive pace. Of course there’s a great deal of raw archival performance material; Redford diversifies the texture by lending some latterday talking-head footage the same glitchy video-vault look, in addition to random black-and-white and further brief animations. It’s a sharply worked package that nonetheless feels faithful to a retro DIY aesthetic of zines and Xerox art. While he’s a conceptually great choice, however, Iggy Pop’s recitation of the voiceover narration is a little over-emphatic, as if he were introducing entirely new ideas to an audience that is very likely to consist mostly of well-schooled fans.

Though Gilman Street at its peak wasn’t a place of mind-bending innovation musically, politically or otherwise, it was nonetheless one of the great “safe place” harbors for “weird people coming together to find themselves,” as Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong puts it. And they made some pretty good art in the process. “Turn It Around” has the 360-degree allure of the best rock documentaries, the ones that make you wish you’d not just “seen that show,” but been embedded in the entire surrounding scene.

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