Pick Your King

Nathaniel Lee on Sacrificial Youth

Joe Losurdo, Sacrificial Youth, 2013, color, sound, 85 minutes.

“OK, LISTEN!” a hearty midwestern voice declares. Then: “This next song is about people trying to tell you what to do…” After a juvenile inventory of ways in which society circumscribes the individual, the vocalist, our soon-to-be-hero TJ (Rob Bakker), lets out one prolonged vowel, sending Sacrificial Youth, his three-piece band, into action and Sacrificial Youth—the first self-described “hardcore punk musical”—into its first act.

It’s fitting that a musical about a devout hardcore punk and his struggling posse should begin with the kind of diatribe that has become one of hardcore’s (and conservative libertarians’) constitutive contrivances. It becomes clear as the movie rocks on with its goofy Broadway-meets-Bowery (circa 1981–90) song hybrids that its creator, Joe Losurdo, himself a veteran of the mid-1980s Chicago hardcore scene, intends his picture to be an update on Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar (1970), one that simultaneously pays homage to hardcore as an enduring, multigenerational phenomenon. (Fans might also look to Menahem Golan’s biblical rock opera The Apple [1980].)

The equation of TJ and JC, a blatant hardcore-heterodox transposition of church and “scene,” resonates with tendencies prevalent among the ’core faithful. TJ is up against what all young punks are up against, namely: society. The world at large conspires to destroy him and all that he holds sacred: his music, his band, and the dwindling flock that fervently attend his sermons (shows) at the local youth center. The villain: an evil, monolithic enterprise seeking to harvest the souls of local youths by selling them on shitty emo and pop-punk and tempting them into a corporate blood pact with their best-selling product, Blüüd Energy Drink. In a stellar early sequence, sellout band Hellbound Boy performs a catchy jingle, with its “We’re Drink’n Blüüd” refrain, in a mock TV commercial for the diabolical beverage. It’s one of the film’s wittiest, most sophisticated moments of metacultural commentary.

All hell breaks lose when TJ and Sacrificial Youth open for Hellbound Boy at a local rock club. Backstage, Hellbound Boy’s manager confronts TJ, offering them a spot with the bullshit band. TJ refuses outright, but his bass player, Jud (Sam Porter), stays behind to catch the full offer. Jud sells out, joining Hellbound Boy and donning their dreaded black eyeliner. Betrayed, TJ tailspins, his world crumbling. He spends much of the film’s remainder running around, periodically bursting into song in a panicked frenzy as multiple subplots close in on him.

To be clear, this is a low-budget flick that features several less-than-skilled actors. Following the example set by Penelope Spheeris’s punk-rock drama Suburbia (1983), Losurdo and his production partner Christina Tillman opted to hire “real” punks. All the T-shirts, stickers, slogans, and slim jeans must be “just so” to pass rather than pose; the lines, plot points, and gags all evince insider “authenticity.” Sadly, cringeworthy acting is the price of such cachet. This is quite obviously a flick for sympathizers. Converts might be few. But isn’t that the point? If you don’t get it, fuck you! has always been the punker’s credo. With every scene and every joke, and even the very idea of a hardcore punk musical—one that plays off the recent success of mainstream franchises like Glee and the High School Musical series—Sacrificial Youth seeks to ingratiate itself with its subject. Consider it a camping of the punk-rock experience with a self-consciously B sci-fi/horror vibe added for effect. In turn, it’s up to those fickle bastards, the punks, to accept or reject the effort.

Sacrificial Youth has its New York premiere October 11 and 12 at Anthology Film as part of the CBGB Music & Film Fest.