“Rokk í Reykjavík” Documentary DVD

I’ve written before about the amazing double album Rokk í Reykjavík, which is actually the soundtrack to the 1982 music documentary of the same name.  Originally aired on Icelandic television, the film is now available on DVD in an all-regions format with English subtitles, something I’d been waiting on, not so patiently, for quite a while.  It’s incredibly fortunate that director Friðrik Þór Friðriksson decided to take an in depth look into the country’s growing punk and new wave scenes way back in the day, as his documentary has to be the cornerstone of any attempt to understand the development of the popular music scene in Iceland.

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The film actually opens with footage of Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson performing rímur, the traditional Icelandic style of chanted poetry and a form of singing that many punks cited as an influence, being that it is so ingrained into the country’s social fabric.  From there, though, it’s moves straight into the contemporary scene with live concert footage of Vonbrigði performing their classic hit, “Ó Reykjavík,” the opening salvo in a barrage of punk, rock, and new wave performances.  The roster of bands featured is a veritable who’s who of Icelandic music – Purrkur Pillnikk, Q4UTappi TíkarrassEgóÞeyr… the list is long, with most bands having at least one complete song filmed live at various venues, studios, and basements.  If there is a downside, it’s that sometimes you can’t figure out which band is playing unless they happened to have been interviewed immediately prior to their song footage (which isn’t always the case) or you’re already well versed in the history of Icelandic music.

Bubbi Morthens gets a lot of screen time, both singing and being interviewed.  His renowned contrarian streak is on full display as he criticizes the government and society as a whole and advises, “I think people should use as much dope [as] they possibly can.”  Perhaps even more powerful than the Morthens footage, however, are the interview clips featuring Bjarni Þórir Þórðarson, the then 15-year-old singer of the band Sjálfsfróun (“Masturbation”) who talks about the difficulties in coming of age in what he sees as an overly structured, rules based, and boring society.  He smokes as he talks about sniffing glue and how when that’s not available he resorts to paint thinner or gasoline, even if he has to steal it from a car.  He is totally matter-of-fact, clearly aware of the dangers huffing poses as he describes the permanent damage it has done to people he knows, and you can’t help but be struck by the hopelessness he sees in his situation (Þórðarson died in a car accident in 2005 at the age of 39).  Sjálfsfróun’s three live songs are sloppy but packed full of raw energy and anger, culminating in Þórðarson completely demolishing his bass on stage with a hatchet.

A handful of the performances stick out, and my favorites include Vonbrigði’s high energy, live rendition of “Ó Reykjavík” and Egó’s basement recording of “Sieg Heil.”  Some of the footage veers off the rails, however, most notably a famous live “show” by Bruno BB that involved killing birds using what looked like a large table sized paper cutter, an incident that actually resulted in the police showing up to shut them down, all of which was captured and included in the film.  They also wrapped someone up in shrikwrap and lit him on fire before putting him out with a fire extinguisher.

Þeyr have a distinctive and important place in the film primarily due to their performance of Rúdólf, a song about the Nazi Rudolph Hess.  What’s unique here isn’t so much the subject matter, which is typical punk fare, but that the band is actually shown in a full-blown music video, one that mixes both footage of them performing in a basement and scenes they shot outside dressed in Nazi regalia doing a sort of storyline about an arrest and execution.  They also incorporate a couple of quick clips of two dancers in the footage of their other song, “Killer Boogie,” placing themselves outside the norm by more fully exploiting the visual aspects the filming opened up to them.

The most famous “image” is undoubtedly that of a 16 or 17 year old Björk dressed like a little girl and performing with the band Tappi Tíkarrass, a still of which appears on the front cover of the DVD and the soundtrack CD booklet in order to capitalize on Iceland’s most internationally famous citizen.  It’s an iconic image of the young and seemingly innocent singer, but one that clearly belies her immensely powerful voice and punk rock attitude.

If you’re even remotely interested in the rise of the Icelandic punk and new wave scenes, Rokk í Reykjavík is a much see.  It’s gritty and edgy, offering no narration other than the interviews of the people who are part of the scene.  Even if you’re not specifically interested in Icelandic music it’s still an intriguing look into a very young, rapidly changing local music scene, one in which a lot of different bands and performers are trying to find their place and ways to express their own individual ideas.  The entire thing is posted on YouTube, though without the English subtitles, and many of the individual songs are broken out into their own vides.  Well worth the look.