Punk was always a genre that found its stripped-down groove in unqualified anger. You can forward a lot of theories on why young men and women embraced punk in the 1970s (Watergate? Stagflation? A backlash against Simon and Garfunkel?), but you cannot deny the anti-establishment philosophy that is central to its power and appeal.
It is fitting that contemporary punk’s greatest innovators may be a quartet of mentally disabled musicians from Finland. Directors Jukka Kärkkäinen and J-P Passi saw Pertti Kurikan nimipäivät (Pertti Kurikka’s Name Day) play one of their earliest gigs two years ago, and almost immediately, decided to shoot a documentary on the band’s triumphs and travails. “If you look at all the top punk groups in Finland,” say J-P, “They would be among the best, and the most active, I would say.” Bass player Sami Helle, a politically active member of Finland’s Centre Party, was not a punk fan until his friend Pertti Kurrika suggested they form a group with friends Kari (vocals) and Toni (drums). “If I had to be compared to a band, it would be Dream Theatre,” says Sami, an expansive talker, of the prog-rock group. “They’re the ultimate package.”
The heavier influences come from Kari and Pertti, who have been compared to Paul McCartney and John Lennon, respectively, according to J-P. In Punk Syndrome, J-P’s camera catches Pertti reciting the self-loathing lines of his diary, an outlet of anxiety that he and Kari transform into foreful, direct songs with appealingly simple lyrics. “Our themes aren’t only about the mentally handicapped,” says Sami, “but about people who feel discriminated, who don’t have jobs, who are in a weaker state of mind.” This seems to strike, at least to a newcomer like myself, at the very heart of the spirit of punk: giving a voice to the voiceless. One of Pertti’s compositions is actually called Speech Defect. After a few years of making and playing music, Pertti’s stutter disappeared.
Finnish underground embraced the band, “not judging” the members for their disabilities. To J-P and Jukka’s credit, Punk Syndrome does not judge its subjects or impose a narrative on their lives. In fact, the deeper one gets into the doc, the more Pertti Kurikka’s Name Day seems like any other group of competing egos. Sami and Kari, who share a group home and are almost always in each other’s company, have explosive fights. They’re Mick Jagger vs Keith Richards, Lars Ulrich vs James Hetfield; pick your rock analogy. Laughing, J-P suggests Spinaltap.
Observers and journalists (including this interviewer) might want to attach some political significance to the issue of mental disabilities, or some psychological angle to how playing music can help temper the anxieties of the handicapped. But Sami is very to the point: “The most important thing for me is have people come to our show and have all their stresses disappear just for those moments. Then I have done my job.” Certainly, Sami and co.’s fans are enthusiastic, even in other countries like Switzerland and Germany, where reception was warm. More European gigs will be forthcoming. Nevertheless, the band may be sparking a debate about the treatment of the handicapped. “I think it’s starting some discussions in the disability scene,” says J-P. Sami says his band puts the issues on the table. “After that,” he adds, “The community can do something about it, it’s out of our hands.” From J-P’s perspective, the documentarian’s job is “to be there”, to capture events and moods, without pushing an agenda.
Kalle, a civil servant who worked with Sami and Kari, became the their unofficial manager, central to their professional and private lives. In one moment of Punk Syndrome, the band members nervously visit Kalle and his newborn son in the hospital. “He’s our big brother,” says Sami, “he puts us in order.” The band’s toughest critics are, in fact, disabled themselves. “When we went to parties for the mentally handicapped in Germany, it was really odd to play in a place like that,” muses Sami. “Those people are your own people. They’re the ones who can be really brutal, they have the same problems that we’re going through in the lyrics. They’re more likely to give you negative feedback.”
J-P recounts a screening of Punk Syndrome for a disabled audience that reminded him of an audience’s reaction to Rocky IV’s Swedish premiere. “People weren’t just watching the film, they were living the film. They were shouting, and clapping, and I think they will accept the film, I know they accept the band.”
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