“Punk’s Dead: SLC Punk 2” (2016): Selling Out or Buying In?

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A band apart (from left to right): Crash (Machine Gun Kelly); Penny (Hannah Marks); and Ross (Ben Schnetzer). Image source: moviefone.com

There is a point near the end of the clumsily-titled Punk’s Dead: SLC Punk 2 where our band of road (and robo)-trippin’ misfits find themselves at a show to end all shows. Cue the familiar images of punks of all ages writhing in a sweaty pit, to a rotating lineup of bands. When one particular song started, I underwent a feeling of bizarre deja vu that sums up the film itself: “I know that fucking song…what is that song?” When I realized what it was (The Dwarves’ ‘I Will Deny,’ for anybody curious), I felt a wave of nostalgia for my early twenties, and the era (circa 2005) which SLC Punk 2 dramatizes.

Nostalgia is a tricky thing, though: sometimes it’s very rewarding to revisit the art that shaped your formative years, but sometimes you listen to an album and appreciate the fact that you’ve moved on. And sometimes it’s strong enough to fog up your perception altogether.

With SLCP2, I really wanted to like it in the same way I liked the original, which I first encountered near the end of my high-school career, and which resonated with me more strongly than the often contrived, sitcom-styled teen odysseys of John Hughes. Stevo (Matthew Lillard, AWOL here) encompassed the snarky youthful outrage that accompanied my own experiences in suburban America, and was an engaging tour guide to the facets of the Salt Lake City punk scene (going so far as to break the fourth wall); his friends were a combination of cool and crazy in the most engaging possible sense: Heroin Bob (Michael Goorjian); Sean (Devon Sawa); John the Mod (James Duval); and Trish (Annabeth Gish, replaced by Sarah Clarke here).

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In a metal mood: Sean (Devon Sawa, left) and John (James Duval) in SLC Punk 2. Image source: youtube.com

SLC Punk spoke to the disenchanted and disillusioned with a sense of empathy, which underlined writer-director James Merendino’s sincerity and honesty with the material. For a film about the punk scene, its rough edges (deliberate and otherwise) didn’t obscure its emotional pulse.

Twenty years on, and the more things change, the more they stay the same. The usual suspects have moved on with their adult lives, but are still stuck in SLC. Oh, with the exception of the deceased Bob, who frames the movie as a narrator-ghost inhabiting what appears to be a dismal (yet fitting) squat-house Afterlife. Trish runs a steampunk/medical oddity shop, and is raising Bob’s son, Ross (Ben Schnetzer), who has blossomed into a doom-minded Victorian Goth. Sean has gone from panhandler to working at a state senator’s office; and John has shed his Mod ways to become the proprietor of SLC’s only heavy-metal shop. Meanwhile, Eddie (Adam Pascal) has parlayed his skills with the ladies into Internet entrepreneurship, running a successful burlesque site.

One of the most interesting insights in SLCP2 is how complacency makes adults reluctant to take action unless someone else leads the charge. These old friends would rather hang out and get caught up on their lost years than search for Ross, who has embarked on a road trip/Easy Rider-styled spiritual journey with unlikely punk pals Crash (Machine Gun Kelly) and Penny (Hannah Marks) following a bad breakup with an Ophelia-styled Goth dreamgirl.

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“Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer – please, come join us!” Image source: cityweekly.net

The second most interesting insight in SLCP2 is the subtle commentary on how scenes and trends are constantly evolving. The musical preferences of Crash and Penny reflect the sensibilities of 2005, not 1985 (though they’ll probably stumble across the albums that shaped Stevo’s and Bob’s formative years soon enough), and that’s totally appropriate. The disenchantment these characters feel is more inward (“emo,” sure) than outward (tearing down The Establishment), which means this film feels more aimless than its predecessor.

I’ll be honest: I had no idea a sequel to SLC Punk existed until I did a double-take while browsing NetFlix Streaming, and immediately feared a soulless cash-grab by producers looking to turn a buck off a beloved cult title. Watching the film, I was smitten with its familiar elements, but found the plot and its developments lackluster and cliched. For the most part, Merendino gets the best from his cast (with a couple exceptions), but winds up recycling the same stylistic tricks that made the original so distinctive (Stevo narrated a montage about the different types of scenesters in SLC; here, Bob gives a rapid-fire summary of the different sub-niches of punk). The tropes of naive drug consumption (Ross chows down on a fistful of mushrooms) are par for the course, as are the obligatory moments where characters spat and make up, flip out on parental figures (in a very random encounter), and announce profound expressions of love that aren’t backed up by any sort of context. The concert sequence is padded out for what seems like an eternity. And the climactic clash of generations, with its “kid’s-gotta-fly-free-sometime” message, is both sickly sweet and narratively underwhelming.

Merendino had a not-bad idea in revisiting this world to match the changes punk (as a concept and scene) has undergone in the ensuing years, but those changes render his film disappointingly sterile, void of the surprises and jolting energy that propelled SLC Punk.

Jonny Numb’s IMDb Rating: 4 out of 10*

(* = this is my honest score. With the nostalgia handicap, bump it up to a 5.)