‘Let’s take a ride, run with the dogs tonight, in Suburbia’ ran the lyrics to a popular track from the Pet Shop boys first album; Neil Tennant was a knowledgeable magazine editor, so when he doffs his hat to film-makers, from Jack Bond to Derek Jarman, there’s usually something behind it. Penelope Spheeris’s 1983 film was a snapshot of youth gone wild, a tradition that runs back to Rebel Without a Cause, but despite Roger Corman’s role as producer, it’s anything but exploitation; this is a thoughtful, powerful film that poses tricky questions about how we treat our children.
Also known as Rebel Streets and The Wild Side, Suburbia is a film that pulls no punches; it opens and closes with the violent deaths of children, so triggers warnings are required. Evan Johnson (Bill Coyne) runs away from home in the greater LA suburbs, and finds his way to a punk-rock gig, where he’s drugged and wakes up in a pool of his own vomit. He’s adopted by Jack Diddley (Chris Pedersen), who shares with the kid the small piece of squalor that he owns; a disused house on the edge of town where a collection of punks have accumulated, away from the society that they’ve rejected for a number of reasons. The dogs run free around here, but the attentions of the police, and vigilante grounds known as Citizens Against Crime, cast a shadow over Evan’s new home, and tragedy is the inevitable consequence.
Spheeris has already made a splash with her documentary The Decline of Western Civilisation, and brings the same admirable attention to detail here; the punk gigs look real, and those playing Evan’s friends are genuine punks rather than actors pretending. A female director proves an inspired choice; Suburbia looks gimlet-eyed at the failure of the police, and society by implication, to recognise the reasons for youth’s revolt. Although there is aggression, and some unbearable behaviour, Spheeris makes no bones about the kids being alright, just marginalised and neglected, and her empathetic strategies pay off big time.
Pop-culture bonuses include an early appearance by Flea from the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, plus performances from The Vandals, D.I. and T.S.O.L; as a picture of a music scene, Suburbia feels authentic. There are moments when Corman and Spheeris seems to be in conflict; the undressing of a female concert-goer by a mob in unnecessarily and uncomfortably protracted. But there are comparatively few films that reflect a female POV on 80’s society, and Suburbia lives up to a reputation as a cult classic that offers something unique and engrossing; this comprehensively packaged blu-ray re-issue on the 101 Black Label is essential viewing for those who want to understand that today’s problems are just yesterday’s problems unresolved.
Thanks to 101 Films for advance access to this title. Suburbia is out now in the UK.
BRAND NEW EXTRAS
• Interview with director Penelope Spheeris
• Limited edition booklet: Includes Punks in Suburbia by Jon Towlson and Before Suburbia: Gangs on Film by Barry Forshaw
• Commentary with director Penelope Spheeris
• Commentary with director Penelope Spheeris, producer Bert Dragin and actor Jennifer Clay
• Still Gallery
• TV Spots