Sometimes you discover a movie you need in your life through the happenstance of a recommendation, a TV broadcast, or a convenient showtime. Other times, you discover an inessential but moderately entertaining picture just because you confused its title with something more substantial. While digging into background context for the Lizzie Borden bomb-thrower Born in Flames, I watched a documentary on the “No Wave” cinema scene that birthed it. Blank City was an excellent crash course in late-70s/early-80s no budget NYC filmmaking, one that credited the film The Blank Generation for inciting the movement. A short documentary compiling footage of who’s-who CBGB regulars like Blondie, The Patti Smith Group, and Television, the film seemed like an essential snapshot of the scene’s early stirrings, something I was delighted to find hosted on the library streaming service Kanopy. Unfortunately, I had gotten a film titled Blank Generation confused with the aforementioned The Blank Generation, an embarrassing mistake for which there is no excuse. Instead of profiling a wide sampling of CBGB heavy hitters, Blank Generation serves as a document of exactly one group from that scene: Richard Hell & The Voidoids. The film is also missing the D.I.Y. crudeness of earlier No Wave productions, instead adopting the European art house genre patina of director Ulli Lommel, a frequent collaborator of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Still, even without the expected no wave grime and with the documentary value of the picture muddled by its fictional plot, Blank Generation largely delivered the exact historical texture I was looking for in The Blank Generation, a film that’s not as readily accessible at this time. Even with mistaking its title with an entirely different film, I still found a fairly substantial document of NYC’s punk rock hangover.
Blank Generation is for Richard Hell what Crossroads was for Britney Spears, what Burlesque was for Christina Aguilera, what Cool as Ice was for Vanilla Ice. There’s a kind of absurdity in finding an early punk scene version of this kind of pop star vanity project, one the movie barely attempts to conceal with the flimsiest of dramatic plots. Playing the Richard Hell-like rock star “Billy,” Hell has to navigate the crises that trouble any successful rock musician on an ego trip: too much attention from beautiful women, too much pressure from record execs, too much scrutiny from the press, too many adoring fans. Poor baby. A minor romantic plot involving A Beautiful French Journalist on assignment to profile “Billy” emerges, but nothing much comes of it beside a few kinky powerplay exchanges in the bedroom and the value of promoting Hell & his band, The Voidoids. A side plot involving a monumental cameo from Andy Warhol (another collaborator of Lommel’s) functions much the same way, strengthening Hell’s brand by association. As is the case with most of these pop star promo dramas, the only reason the film works at all, then, is that Richard Hell & The Voidoids are genuinely charismatic & worthy of fascination. After being introduced to Hell’s work in The Voidoids through the CD anthology Time in high school, I‘ve always struggled with hearing cleaner, more professionally produced recordings of those same tracks on the band’s proper LPs; so it’s wonderful to hear the band in their live, rambunctious form here while also seeing them in action for the first time. Songs like “Blank Generation,” “New Pleasure”, and “Love Comes in Spurts” frequently repeat throughout the film, with Hell even selecting them on the jukebox of his neighborhood bar in the few scenes when he’s not in the recording booth or preforming onstage at CBGB. He also holds his own as a style icon, sporting his spiked hair & safety pins version of punk fashion that was coopted by Malcom McLaren and then mall punks everywhere. Yes, it’s absurd that there was ever a Richard Hell & The Voidoids promo movie in the first place, especially one this artistically pretentious, but the band is so mesmerizing in look & sound that the indulgence is justified.
Because Blank Generation adopts such a minor, surface-level plot, its staying power rests entirely in its details. The credits’ display on Times Square billboard ads, Andy Warhol’s cameo’s framing as a kind of performance art piece, and the way the journalist’s camera functions as a tables-turning phallic tool are all more interesting in isolation that anything that actually happens in the story. The movie also plays with the cognitive remove of filming videotape displays, something that would later become a huge deal in 80s indie cinema, most evident in titles like Videodrome & Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Above all, Blank Generation is valuable for the details it captures of a pre-Giuliani NYC, something that’s an integral part of Richard Hell’s DNA. It’s not quite the purposeful, all-encompassing documentation I expected from The Blank Generation, but it still navigates the city’s early punk hangover with a useful eye for cataloging the objects & people that populate it. Like in the glam rock hagiography Velvet Goldmine, Blank Generation uses the lens of music journalism as a device for capturing the moods, sounds, and fashions of a very particular arts scene for future posterity. This film’s imagination is far less poetic & lyrical than that Todd Haynes classic, relying heavily on familiar tropes of rock star excess to construct its deliberately minor drama. Still, it’s an essential document of a great, young band in their prime, including the physical & cultural context of their surroundings. Anyone looking for a European art house drama about troubled artists in love negotiating their sexual power dynamics could likely find hundreds of better films to suit their needs. Anyone who’d be interested in seeing Richard Hell & The Voidoids immortalized in cinematic posterity have few (if any) other titles to turn to, however, and that rarity is this film’s greatest asset.