If you're looking for a persuasive artifact to demonstrate punk-rock's cultural vitality, D.O.A.: A Rite of Passage will leave you wanting. Lech Kowalski's 1980 documentary about the Sex Pistols' only US tour in 1978 captures some rough footage of the British punk icons onstage and their American fans, as well as spotlighting other major and minor figures in the movement, like X-Ray Spex, Sham 69, Generation X, the Rich Kids, the Dead Boys, and… Terry and the Idiots.
Live performances by those groups (save for the last named) as well as the wildly different responses by audience members of the Pistols’ show remain the highlights of D.O.A., though Kowalski tries to imbue the film with social and political commentary and context, rarely to riveting effect. However, the interviews with Bernard Brooke Partridge, a member of Greater London Council, wind up being unintentionally humorous, as he is practically a parody of the uptight Englishman who simply cannot abide these punk hooligans and their rambunctious shenanigans. “I represent the status quo, perpetuity, orthodox government, the democratic elective process,” Partridge primly asserts. “The punks will not beat us.” ROFL.
Further comic relief comes with a brief appearance by Jonathan Guinness, heir to Guinness fortune, a posh fucker who claims that punks “would like to be back in the time when they could be hacking people to death.” Where's a thick gob of spit when you need it? More levity: Tickets for the Pistols' Tulsa, Oklahoma gig cost $3.50.
As for tragedy, D.O.A. presents Sid and Nancy. The passages where Kowalski strives in vain to get a decent interview with Pistols bassist Vicious and his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, are supremely pathetic, in that special way of codependent junkies. Sid is as useless in this scenario as he was onstage, where his main skill was raising one side of upper lip in a futile display of machismo and bashing punters with his instrument. In the "interviews," he repeatedly dozes off, drops his lit cigarette on Spungen, and mumbles inanities. She is more coherent and game, but not exactly a Courtney Love with the quips. “Sid would’ve died 15 deaths if I’d not been around,” Spungen boasts, and you think, “That’s all?”
The absence of any interviews with Johnny Rotten—who is absolutely on fire throughout the tour and totally worth the price of admission alone—stands as the movie’s most blatant misstep, though surely there was a good reason for this omission. Right? In fact, neither guitarist Steve Jones nor drummer Paul Cook received much one-on-one with the director. Whatever the case, one can’t help thinking that if Kowalski could’ve gotten quality mic time with Mr. Lydon, the doc would’ve improved by about 75 percent. But, alas, no.
Still, D.O.A. is valuable as a necessarily raw and flawed depiction of punk’s impact in the UK and US, how the authorities and youths of both countries could and couldn’t handle it, and how even a mega-corporation like Warner Bros. wanted a slice of the action.