The spirit of punk lives on in Nigel Askew’s documentary featuring Joe Corré and the Westwood-McLaren clan

Wake Up Punk

Source: Courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival

‘Wake Up Punk’

Dir. Nigel Askew. UK. 2021. 84 mins

Punk’s not dead. It just changed its outfit. This documentary from Nigel Askew explores the thorny question of what actually constitutes “punk”? Safety pins, bondage gear and Mohicans? Or a state of mind? Can it be bought? Learned? Or is it innate? The film features sizeable contributions from the surviving members of punk’s first family (Vivienne Westwood, her sons Joe Corré and Ben Westwood) and an account of Corré’s provocative act in 2016 in which he burned punk-era memorabilia with an estimated value of £5 million as a protest at the commodification of the movement. It also features an ill-advised Dickensian device featuring a bunch of stage school workhouse urchins deconstructing a rotten monetary system. For the most part, though, it’s feisty, impassioned and entertaining stuff which makes a persuasive case that the disruptive spirit of punk lives on, in activist and protest movements and in figures like Julian Assange.

It’s feisty, impassioned and entertaining stuff which makes a persuasive case that the disruptive spirit of punk lives on

This is the first feature from activist, videographer and fashion archivist Askew, who has had a long-standing creative relationship with Corré, having previously made a series of music videos for Corré’s lingerie company Agent Provocateur. It will be distributed in the UK by Republic Films, where it will likely connect with much the same audience as the similarly punk-spirited Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliche, which also premiered at last year’s Glasgow Film Festival. 

Corré is introduced as something akin to a hate figure for the media at the start of the film. His decision to burn a culturally significant, irreplaceable collection of historical documents and clothes incurred the kind of frothing rage that his father, punk impresario and professional provocateur Malcolm McLaren, would have gleefully courted back in his establishment-baiting heyday. But set against the backdrop of government-backed punk anniversary celebrations and ludicrous marketing spin offs like a “punk” Mastercard and a hotel offering a punk-themed afternoon tea (“Anarch-tea in the UK”), Corré’s proposed immolation of punk artifacts seems like a perfectly reasonable response. A culture which believes that something as furious and confrontational as the punk movement can be contained in a museum is, according to Corré, rather missing the point. 

The point, according to one punk original, is that as soon as the label “punk” had been devised, the movement was more or less over. It’s an extreme view, perhaps, but one backed up by grand dame Vivienne Westwood, who argues that the movement was at its most vital when it was all about wildly unabashed self expression, rather than when it came with its own uniform and proscribed value system – admittedly a value system which placed value on very little, but a system nonetheless. 

The Westwood we meet in this film is less defensive and brittle than the one we saw in the 2018 documentary Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist. Particularly effective are the scenes which show her with her two sons reminiscing and exploring what it meant to be on the ground during the birth of the movement, and what punk stands for to those who grew up with it as a main source of cultural nourishment. There’s an unexpectedly heartwarming tale of hitchhiking to Wales for a family holiday and stealing money from a wishing well to spend on breakfast; there are insights into McLaren’s tricky personality. 

It’s somewhat choppy in approach – the film jumps erratically between interviews with graffiti artists to Greenpeace head John Sauven to footage of a suitably anarchic panel event discussing punk’s legacy to the Dickensian waifs. But then, the clothes that Corré torched were statements held together with bicycle tyres, safety pins and spit. It’s scattershot but this is filmmaking in the spirit of a Westwood-McLaren T-shirt. Yes, there’s a bit of bollocks in there, but never mind. It gets the message across.

Production company: Know Future Ltd

Contact: Bus Stop Entertainment

Producer: Nigel Askew

Cinematography: Nigel Askew

Editor: Nigen Askew

Music: Adamski

With: Vivienne Westwood, Joe Corré, Ben Westwood, Eddie Tudor-Pole, Jordan Mooney, Daniel Lismore, Nick Reynolds