‘The Damned: Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead’: Film Review

Courtesy of Three Count Films
A chaotic but amusing nonfiction remake of "This Is Spinal Tap"

British punk pioneers The Damned get the career-spanning rockumentary treatment with a little help from their famous friends.

A rocky horror show of comic book anarchy, The Damned started out as trailblazers on London’s mid-1970s punk rock scene, but never fully capitalized on their early notoriety. They were the first British punk band to release a single, the immortal “New Rose” in 1976. They also were the first of their peers to release an album, and the first to tour the U.S., where they left a lasting musical legacy. But the critical adoration lavished on contemporaries like The Clash and Sex Pistols always eluded them, largely because they preferred goofing around in silly costumes to chanting angry political slogans. Brash and juvenile and full of mischief, The Damned were essentially a punk Banana Splits.

All the same, these seasoned rock survivors have outlasted most of their more feted 1970s rivals, surviving multiple breakups and reboots over the last four decades. Director Wes Orshoski, who previously co-directed a laudatory 2010 profile of Motorhead frontman Lemmy Kilmister, builds a solid case for the band’s historic importance in this funny, fast-moving, fan-friendly documentary. Currently on limited release across the U.K., Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead is heading for a string of North American screenings in July and August.

Titled after a Damned song lyric, Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead blends gloriously chaotic archival material with firsthand footage shot on more recent tours. The band’s classic late-1970s lineup of singer Dave Vanian, bass player turned guitarist Captain Sensible (aka Ray Burns), drummer Rat Scabies (Christopher Millar) and guitarist Brian James all share their stories with Orshoski, despite the bitter feuds that have split the band into two camps. In the current incarnation, only Vanian and Sensible remain, looking impressively youthful on the cusp of turning 60.

Orshoski also interviews friend and fans from the rock world, including Chris Stein and Clem Burke of Blondie, Nick Mason of Pink Floyd, Mick Jones of The Clash, Duff McKagan of Guns N' Roses, DJ and filmmaker Don Letts and Dead Kennedys' founder Jello Biafra. Remarkably, future Pretenders singer Chrissie Hynde and future Culture Club drummer Jon Moss both played in early lineups of The Damned, and both appear here.

Driven more by affection than journalistic rigor, Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead was plainly a personal passion project for Orshoski, who followed the band around the world over a three-year period. He describes his shooting style as “one guy, one credit card, one camera,” which certainly fits punk’s creed of DIY amateurism. It also helps explain the film’s rough shooting style, misspelt English place names and scattershot approach to chronology. This is not a neat rock-doc narrative, mainly because The Damned have such a messy history, churning through multiple changes of musical style and personnel. A line about their “conveyor belt of bass players” is pure Spinal Tap.

Orshoski struggles to impose dramatic shape on a sprawling subject, but at least he finds an emotional hook in the decades-old rift between Sensible and Scabies, a disagreement over unpaid royalties that is now “beyond repair.” Scabies dismisses the dispute as ancient history but his tearful, agitated interviews tell a different story. Speaking at the London premiere, he said he hopes this documentary will bring “closure.” This sad little subplot leaves a bitter aftertaste, but does not dilute the film’s overall take-home message that The Damned were the live-wire jokers of the London punk scene. Crying-on-the-inside clowns, maybe, but clowns all the same.

Production company: Three Count Films

Cast: Dave Vanian, Captain Sensible, Rat Scabies, Brian James, Chrissie Hynde, Nick Mason, Lemmy, Duff McKagan, Don Letts, Ian MacKaye

Director/writer/producer/editor/cameraman: Wes Orshoski

Music: The Damned

Unrated, 110 minutes