By Lexy Green
Corbett Redford, director of the new documentary, Turn It Around: The Story of East Bay Punk, recalls the first time he met Mike Dirnt, the bassist of punk rock band Green Day. An anxious and uncool Pinole Valley High School freshman, Redford had just been shoved into a locker and had his backpack kicked under the bleachers when Dirnt, a scruffy, long-haired senior, appeared and asked him what was going on. After hearing the explanation, Dirnt rescued the backpack and quickly slipped away, pursued by one of the school’s more tyrannical PE teachers.
That small act of kindness from one outcast to another embodies a fundamental part of the ethos of Berkeley’s 924 Gilman music venue, where Green Day got its start and where the East Bay punk scene found a home, all of which Redford has chronicled in his new film.
A quarter century and a dozen albums after that day in the high school gym, the members of Green Day reached out to Redford for a favor. As he explains, they “had been talking a long time about doing a movie.” One idea was to focus on the “big bands” that had emerged from the East Bay punk renaissance, like Jawbreaker, Rancid, and Neurosis and “another was a movie about Green Day’s early years.”
“Billie [Joe Armstrong, Green Day’s vocalist] … asked me, ‘Hey, there’s this footage I’m looking for. Can you get it?’ So I did, and …I brought it back to him. He goes, ‘We’re thinking about making a movie about our early days; do you know anyone who could do it?’” Grounded in Gilman’s DIY culture, Redford responded simply, “I could.”
Without any formal education as a filmmaker, Redford had never previously made a feature-length film, but he had spent the previous five years frenetically producing music videos and other media for his band, Bobby Joe Ebola and the Children MacNuggits.
“We had played over 500 shows, recorded over 100 songs, 13 music videos, three of them crowdsourced….self booked all of our shows, jumped across the pond for the first time. Published two books,” he said.
Throughout this period of intense productivity and frequent exhaustion, the members of Green Day were cheering Redford on.
“I’d get this … message from Billie … right when I was falling apart … They would see me do this book production and be up for 30 hours in a row and they were like, ‘Go Go Go!’ … I think something in me knew that they knew that I was insane enough to take something like this on.”
The band agreed to produce Redford’s film and their faith in him proved to be well-placed.
The documentary, which is narrated by Iggy Pop, spans 30 years of history and explores the evolution of punk rock in Northern California. The East Bay bands — who embraced a fun, inclusive style that built on the region’s tradition of radical thinking — was partly a response to a San Francisco scene that had become tainted by violence and racism. As the film’s official description puts it: “Banding together around Berkeley’s all volunteer 924 Gilman Club, this diverse collective of misfits created a DIY, no-spectators petri dish for art and music that changed the world at large.”
This East Bay punk ethos is not only a subject of the film, but also underscores the philosophy behind its production, driving everything from the decision to entrust the project to a first-time director, to editorial choices.
“I’ve had entertainment lawyers who I work with … say, ‘I’ve never seen anyone do what you just did,’” said Redford. “And I say it’s that DIY thing … That’s part of punk. Not asking for permission to be what you want to be. And through trial and error just going out and doing it.”
Soon after Redford began work on the project, the film that had begun as the story of Green Day’s early years changed.
“I was trying to come up with these lines and ideas and the fun part was Billie and Mike coming to the studio and we’d throw names up against the board. ‘Hey, let’s get that person.’ And before you knew it, it was like all the people we didn’t think we could get, we were getting … This thing’s growing. It’s getting crazy. And one day Billie came in and he goes, ‘I think this is about more than Green Day.’”
In all Redford and his crew amassed and catalogued over 35,000 photos, 10,000 fliers, and 500 live clips documenting the East Bay punk scene. Redford is deeply grateful to the veterans of the scene for their generosity in sharing their valuable memories and artifacts, but it’s arguable that he earned their generosity.
“I speak fluent burnout because I am kind of a burnout. I had to be compassionate. I had to speak with conviction. I had to do some weird stuff, and I had to show up at a diner after midnight to talk to somebody about being part of this … I had to do my best to ease their minds.”
Easing people’s minds was crucial because there were suspicions about the motivation for the project. Was it just an attempt by Green Day to “place themselves in punk?”
Redford said this concern could not be further from the truth.
“It really is Green Day shining their light on them. The distributors are like, ‘For all your Duff McKagans and Kirk Hammetts and these people, there’s like a hundred people in this movie that nobody knows about.” It would be reasonable to worry about the film’s marketability, “but Green Day doesn’t care.”
“The big complaint by a lot of people was, ‘How can Green Day make a movie about punk?’ And my answer is, because they’re punk.” And “if we’re talking about East Bay punk, it’s a particular kind of punk that came out of here.”
It is a positive punk that believes that “with adversity you try to build and make something good happen and good things can come out of that … Okay, so hardcore shows are violent, you’re getting ripped off by Ruthie’s, you’re getting your ass beat by a national(ist) skinhead, whatever’s going on … make some rules, try to come together, try to build something, try to make something good.”
Redford believes one of the key reasons a punk club flourished in Berkeley was Jim Widess, the man who owns the caning shop that Gilman is housed in. “He puts flutes on pigeons. That’s his thing … Total hippie, total welcoming Berkeleyite,” he said. Redford also credits Gilman founder Tim Yohannan, an “educated East Coast Red … He was a good old American communist … That’s why Gilman’s here 30 years on — rules.”
As for how the filmmaking collaboration went, Redford said Armstrong had three rules at the outset: “Don’t focus on nostalgia, (use) diverse voices, (and) don’t focus on the acrimony, the back-biting. Focus on people’s contributions.”
And his final advice to the first-time director? “‘Focus on love; focus on life; don’t read the reviews.”
Turn it Around: The Story of East Bay Punk has its world premiere at the 16th San Francisco Documentary Festival on May 31. Though advance tickets for the event are sold out, tickets are still available for the June 2 screening. Additional screenings in San Francisco and the East Bay will follow.