Punk Slash! Musicals: Tracking Slip-Sync on Film
(University of Texas Press)
US: Apr 2010
The stimulus for this book, David Laderman reveals, is the scene in Sid and Nancy in which Gary Oldman, playing Sid Vicious, sings ‘My Way’. This performance begins with Oldman’s ragged vocals over an orchestral soundtrack, which then segues into a punk accompaniment.
After a few verses, Oldman stops singing and produces a gun, which he fires on several members of his audience, but as he does so, the singing continues. As such, it is unclear whether Oldman (or Vicious) has been lip-syncing up to this point, or whether there has been a shift in the sound design. Since no musicians are visible, it is also unclear whether we should presume that there is an orchestra present, or whether Vicious should be taken to be singing over a backing track.
This lack of synchronicity, in which vocals, instrumentation, and visuals do not always match up, is described by Laderman as ‘slip-sync’. His argument is that this device is typical of punk cinema, and is used to create moments of tension. The breadth of his examples is impressive; he examines almost the entire canon of punk films from his chosen period of 1978 to 1986. Despite the comprehensive view he takes, he does not force his ideas on the films he considers. In fact, each of the films lends itself extremely well to the concept of slip-sync, and this is testament to the strength of Laderman’s argument.
Slip-sync is also given a fully developed context; it has its origins in classic musicals such as Singin’ in the Rain, and of course the influence of the Hollywood musical is present in many punk films. This most immediate precursor of the genre though, Laderman tells us, is The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which provides a bridge between the camp theatricality of the musical, and the subversive themes of independent punk cinema and the punk movement in general.
However, slip-sync remains relevant to the production and performance of music and film today. Examples of this include the infamous moment when Ashlee Simpson began to lip-sync to the wrong song on Saturday Night Live, and the viral YouTube video of an overweight Dutch man miming to the Europop hit ‘Dragostea Din Tei’. That video has none of the shock and subversion of punk, but it does inherit the DIY aesthetic, and as such, its moment of slip-sync shows us punk has been influential on the mainstream culture of today.
An important part of Laderman’s argument is the idea of authenticity, which is of course very relevant to punk. To consider the conflict between authenticity and inauthenticity, he comes up with the rather awkward term ‘in/authenticity’. There is also more than a little clumsiness in the title Punk Slash! Musicals, with its peculiar grammar and punctuation. But then, there is plenty about punk that is ostensibly awkward, from its often dissonant singing to its visual style. So we can consider Laderman’s chosen vocabulary to be reflective of his subject matter. The ‘slash’ in his book’s title and the slash that punctuates ‘in/authenticity’ are also reminiscent of the cuts made in the editing suite that are so crucial to the idea of slip-sync.
Laderman fleshes out his argument with some consideration of the roles of gender and race in punk cinema, but in a slight volume like this there is insufficient space to fully develop these major issues. The occasional discussions of race can be taken as incidental, but the forays into feminism are too deliberate to be cut short in the way that they are. It’s true that a number of the examples, such as Breaking Glass and Ladies and Gentleman, the Fabulous Stains have female protagonists, but a feminist examination of punk cinema seems like it should be part of a different book. Just as the vocal track in Sid and Nancy is not always in sync with what’s happening on screen, this is not completely in sync with the mainstream of Laderman’s argument.
Nonetheless, the ideas at the core of this book are both convincing and compelling. It’s also a valuable text as an examination of independent punk cinema. Well-known films like Jubilee and The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle are considered in a fresh way, while lesser-known works are also included in the survey. The fact that punk cinema began to gain prominence after the initial punk movement had subsided may be the reason why it is less commented on than the music and subculture of punk. Punk Slash! Musicals goes some way towards rectifying this deficit of criticism and is to be applauded for this reason.