Director: Lech Kowalski
Screenplay: Lech Kowalski, Chris Salewicz
Starring: Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious, Steve Jones, Paul Cook, Nancy Spungen
Duration: 93 min
BBFC Certification: 18
Forty years ago, the Sex Pistols started their first tour of the US. It was a total disaster which led to Johnny Rotten quitting the band on stage in San Francisco, uttering the now famous line, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”. US filmmaker, Lech Kowalski, decided to film the tour, but without permission from the band or their record label, he undertook his mission guerrilla style. After the tour, he interviewed Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen and then flew to England to film performances by other punk bands of the time. The completed film, now titled D.O.A.: A Right of Passage, was premiered in New York in 1981 and then appeared on video in the US in 1983, before quickly going out of circulation. Over the years it has gone on to gain a legendary reputation and it has now been released on Blu-ray by Second Sight.
Considering how Kowalski had to smuggle his cameras and sound recording equipment into the shows, the footage of the Sex Pistols is remarkable. In the modern era, it’s easy to forget how dangerous the band seemed – Sid Vicious stalking his side of the stage, blood dripping from the slogan “Gimme A Fix” carved into his chest and Johnny Rotten slumped over the microphone like a punk rock Richard III, spitting out lyrics with his pin needle eyes darting across the audience. Outside the shows, audience members are interviewed alongside bemused onlookers, outraged attendees and even religious zealots protesting the shows. Many of the shows were booked by the band’s manager, Malcolm McLaren, in bible-belt cities like Tulsa and San Antonio just to antagonise the locals, with many of the venues being country and western clubs frequented by less than tolerant rednecks.
In addition to this, there are interviews and live performances from X-Ray Spex, Generation X, Dead Boys and Sham 69, much of it intercut with footage of police brutality on the streets of London and rioting punks. With the exception of ex-Sex Pistol Glen Matlock leading The Rich Kids through a version of Pretty Vacant, much of this footage has little to do with the Sex Pistols, but it shows the viewer how grim 1970s Britain was and helps give an understanding of how punk came to be.
D.O.A. serves as an epitaph to the first wave of UK punk. As well as seeing the implosion of the Sex Pistols on stage, there is the infamous interview with Sid and Nancy in their squalid room in New York’s Chelsea Hotel. They both lay in bed, high on heroin with Sid constantly nodding out and unable to string a coherent sentence together. It’s grim viewing, especially with the knowledge that within a few months of the interview Sid had stabbed Nancy to death and after being released on bail took a lethal dose of heroin. Also worth noting is that by the time the film was premiered in 1981, all the other bands in the film had broken up.
I’m not sure that D.O.A. benefits from a Blu-ray release, as the source footage is of low quality, shot on handheld cameras on 16mm film. Despite the picture being remastered for release it is still incredibly grainy and full of scratches – but then you could argue that this makes it all the more punk rock!
The extras are a treat for punk rock fans. First there is a brand new feature length documentary entitled Dead on Arrival: The Punk Documentary That Almost Never Was. This is an excellent companion piece to the main feature that covers the story, development and shooting of the film, as well as discussing it’s mythical status among music fans. It includes previously unseen interview footage with Sex Pistol’s manager Malcolm McLaren, as well as new interviews with music journalist Chris Salewicz, photographer Roberta Bayley, PUNK magazine founder John Holmstrom and former Rich Kids guitarist and Ultravox singer Midge Ure.
Also included is D.O.A.: A Punk Post Mortem which is an extended interview with Chris Salewicz, an image gallery and theatrical trailers. Finally, there is a double-sided poster with the film’s original artwork & the film’s premiere poster and a 12 page booklet written by Tim Murray.
D.O.A.: A Right of Passage is a wonderful document of a fascinating period of music history. It is a film that has been notoriously difficult to gain possession off over the years and it’s fantastic to now have it widely available. I cannot recommend it enough to true music lovers.
D.O.A.: A Rite of Passage is released on dual format Blu-ray/DVD by Second Sight.