‘Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over’ Movie Review: Punk Icon Doc
Most pictures are worth a thousand words. The shot of Lydia Lunch that graces the poster of her documentary, Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over, is worth a thousand and one atom bombs. It’s a famous Annie Sprinkle snapshot of her from 1986. The singer/provocateur/punk rock O.G. is facing slightly away from the camera. She’s sporting red hair and even redder lipstick, clad in a similarly colored brassiere and spandex skirt — everything falls somewhere on spectrum between firetruck and candy-apple. Her head is tilted back, and she is staring at you, as if she’s double-daring you to come a little closer. The sneer, however, says you best stay the fuck away. And on her hands is the picture’s pièce de résistance: a pair of red boxing gloves. Her dukes aren’t up, not yet. But that look suggests she’s still as likely to cold-cock you in the face as soul-kiss you.
Someone who’s earned the right to be called an icon, Lunch has four-plus decades under her belt as a frontwoman (big up Teenage Jesus and the Jerks!), a musician, a spoken-word artist, a self-empowerment activist, a poet, and a glorious holy terror. She’s also a survivor of sexual abuse, and the doc kicks off with her telling a story about an incident where she’s picked up by a predator while waiting for a bus. The man promises to drive the 13-year-old Lydia home, then takes her to a park. He asks her at gunpoint to lick the tires of his car. It’s not about sex, he tells her, and the now-adult Lydia recounts an epiphany of sorts: No, it’s about power. But you can see how she’s melded the two elements together. And suddenly, both that photo and one long, brutally honest body of work come sharply into focus.
Who else but Beth B. could have done justice to Lydia’s story? This veteran New York filmmaker has been in the exact same trenches that Lunch first raged and stomped through in the warzone of late Seventies LES — described as being “like a cancerous mouth that had its molars ripped out” — and they’ve worked together since No Wave Day Zero. They are not counterparts, but kindred spirits. The War Is Never Over trots out a lot of “typical” music-doc staples, from grainy footage of old bands (Suicide, DNA, the Contortions) to famous-fans-and-peers interviewees (Thurston Moore, Carla Bozulich, L7’s Donita Sparks, Richard Kern). Snippets of past work and recent-ish performances attest to a legacy of mastering the art of short, sharp, shrieking shocks and speaking truth to everybody. Lydia’s noise-skronk band Retrovirus, which played songs from numerous past Lunch projects and collaborations, get lots of screen time on and off stage. Her status as royalty is rightfully, respectfully, if not comprehensively given its due. All hail the Queen of the Underground!
But B. is one of the few people brave enough and/or willing to make a film that matches Lydia’s modus operandi of attack, which is: Raw. Loud. Abrasive. Harrowing. Unfiltered. Unflinching. Some documentarians might have tempered Lunch’s harrowing recountings of being molested by her father, or to borrow one of Lunch’s phrases, relegated her “travelogue of sexual horror and repercussions” to the background noise of a Horror City nostalgia tour. Instead, the filmmaker foregrounds and leans in to it. You feel like you’ve been sandblasted afterward. Both Lydia and her co-conspirator Kern are given space to unpack their controversial 1985 short Right Side of My Brain, an autobiographical homage to Repulsion that features Lunch fellating her then-boyfriend, Scraping Foetus Off the Wheel’s Jim Thirlwell. (Also romping through the movie’s dark escapades: A young, whippet-thin Henry Rollins.) It blurred the line between sex, addiction and violence in the most uncomfortable ways, and by design: Lunch wanted to give you a peek into her mindset. She demands you walk a mile in her stilettos. “If you can’t take it for 20 mins,” she says, “try living it for 20 or 40 years.”
Like her music, the clips of that Kern film still feel dangerous, like a transmission from some rough, untamed psychic landscape. It also feels cathartic, and you see how, for all of the purposeful, amateurish, punk AF provocation Lydia has trafficked in for years and years, there’s a method to the mayhem and the constant come-hither persona. The War Is Never Over is as much about trauma and processing and empowerment — the real kind, not the bumper-sticker-slogan kind — as it about music, or a musician, or a cultural moment. What it leaves out of Lydia’s history is substituted by what it adds to understanding her story. This woman may have lost numerous battles throughout her life. But she has unequivocally won the war.