Penelope Spheeris – Punk Movie Suburbia

How do you make a punk movie?

Don’t bother getting actors; just get real kids to do the acting. Suburbia (1984) is set in a California punk squat and portrays some of the standard punk themes – dropping out, moral panic, violence, group identity and boredom.

“A band is a symbol of a family — it’s a lot of rejected people coming together to make a replacement family. That a band can even write a song is a miracle, the people are so messed up. I guess you could say the same thing about how hard it is for a family to stick together and work harmonically, excuse the pun. And there’s that correspondence to the carnival — outcasts uniting in a common goal.”

The back-stories of the teenagers explains their rebellion, an idea that motivated Penelope Spheeris, who was born into a carnival family and whose father was killed in a knife fight.

“Growing up, I was rageful. For a long time, success meant to me I could pay back all of those people who made me angry. It’s a terrible motivation, but it worked. ……….. If grown-ups were in the other room, being drunk and breaking plates, I’d go in the bedroom and turn on my music. The more angry the music, the better.”

The girls in the film get a bad deal. That was 1984 and Spheeris is ahead of her time in identifying the issues that lead young people to disconnect.  Suburbia has a load of fans, including The Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant, who wrote their top 10 hit inspired by the film.


Music for the film, Suburbia is provided by U.S. punk bands  D.I.   T.S.O.L.  and The Vandals


Spheeris is best known as the director of Wayne’s World (1992), but she also has won acclaim for her punk/metal documentary series The Decline of Western Civilisation (1981-88)

pen spheris
Penelope Spheeris

“The point of punk was to tear down old traditions. The point in metal was: I want to party. In punk, all the girls looked like boys, and in metal, all the boys looked like girls.”



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