Punk documentary offers life lessons
The premise of the documentary The Other F Word is that there’s something outlandish, even implausible, in the spectacle of a man who’s made his living and his name as a punk rock musician taking on the role of a father. It’s an idea made visible by the image on the film’s poster and DVD packaging, of Lars Frederiksen from the punk band Rancid, with his hair dyed in leopard spots, his two tone pants and a t-shirt reading “I Hate People” walking his toddler son to the park.
I can thank punk rock for a lot. When I was young, it gave me music I could call my own and a cultural moment to embrace, and over time its bedrock dictum “Don’t Trust Authority” has been essential to forming a conservative political viewpoint – far more than it ever did when I called myself a liberal. It also played no small part in helping me embrace a pro-life stance – almost as much as my Catholic faith.
For its shock value alone, abortion was an evergreen theme in punk imagery and lyrics, but at a time (and in a country) where no one wanted to really talk about the simple facts of abortion, punk’s insistence in waving it in your face, if only to provoke, forced me to contemplate something that native moral clarity has to judge to be monstrous. Simply put, a single Sex Pistols song – “Bodies” – did more to form my pro-life conscience than a hundred earnest pamphlets, and I don’t think I’m alone.
Which is why a film about punk rock dads sounded like it was aimed directly at someone like me – a father whose wife has had to implore me not to wear certain t-shirts to parent-teacher interviews, and whose heart thrills warmly whenever my daughters spontaneously bounce around my office to my Ramones records.
The men profiled in Andrea Blaugrund Nevins’ film play in bands like Rancid, Everclear, Blink 182 and NOFX, but the film centers itself around Jim Lindberg, lead singer of skatepunk band Pennywise as he endures well over 200 days of touring to promote his band’s latest record, near the end of that band’s second decade of existence.
He’s also the father of three girls, and visibly chafes at the stress of being away from his family for over two-thirds of the year, missing recitals and games and first days of school among other little milestones. Like almost all the other punk rock dads in the film, he lives in what looks like middle-class comfort; the big record collection, home studio and stray bits of garish artwork hanging on the walls wouldn’t be out of place in the home of a prosperous tradesman or broker with creative hobbies, especially if he’s between 25 and 50.
He’s also ageing, and while showing off items in his touring survival kit (antacids, hand sanitizer, hair dye, an ear and nose hair trimmer) wonders aloud if he’s getting too old for this. And like most of the other men in the film, he wonders if there’s a contradiction in becoming an authority figure at home while entertaining fans on stage with songs that celebrate rebellion.
There’s a hearbreaking middle section where the men recall their own post-‘60s childhoods, marked by divorce, abuse and absent fathers; one hardcore punk stalwart remembers the abiding sorrow of his wife’s miscarriage, and another breaks down when he tells the story of the death of his oldest son in a car accident. All of them vow that they will do anything to give their children a better upbringing than their own.
The film’s climax comes when Lindberg decides to leave Pennywise as the prospect of endless touring becomes unendurable, and his decision seems to answer the question the film asks over and over – “Can you be a punk and a dad?” – with an almost definitive “no.”
The problem is that the film is asking the wrong question. I have known plenty of men – and women – who’ve agonized with the dilemma of balancing demanding careers and their family, but they’ve been executives, entrepreneurs, journalists, lobbyists, film industry professionals and even politicians. You have to give up a lot to be a parent, and The Other F Word ends before it reaches the realization that it takes more effort to sacrifice time and energy than a silly hair cut or a t-shirt with a rude word on it.