The last time punk rock threatened to change the world was about 2002. Like all subcultures, the popularity and identity of punk ebbed and flowed and became totally irrelevant to the previous generation over the years. In 2002, I was still in high school and, for a brief period of time, the music that I listened to was on television. I can’t say I’m particularly proud of it, but I saw bands like Good Charlotte go from indifference to TRL right before my eyes. This was important to me, somehow, because I was still a dumb teenager. Cries of ‘Sellout!’ abounded (this was a time when making tons of money from music was not only possible, but highly frowned upon). Bands may have been signing to major labels left and right and producing what is now considered mostly embarrassing crap, but I knew that soon bands like Goldfinger and… whatever the fuck else I listened to would rule the airwaves.
(Please note that I am not here to argue about what is punk and what isn’t but rather what my teenaged mind considered punk. That is one of the more boring and endless debates of the entire Internet, which is no mean feat in itself.)
Then the Internet happened, Lars Ulrich’s bitching couldn’t save the industry and music took a giant nosedive. All the pop-punk bands that I loved so dearly were dropped by their major labels, Green Day became indistinguishable from U2 and I suddenly discovered that there were other bands in the world. When something is popular even that briefly, it usually leaves behind more cultural artefacts than Blink-182’s cameo in American Pie. But while pop-punk in the mainstream may have left a bunch of Hot Topics and dollar-bin CDs in its wake, its major contribution to cinema was probably the proliferation of pop-punk acts on teen-movie soundtracks. The few movies that came out were low-budget comedies like That Darn Punk! or Punk Rock Holocaust, Troma-type deals that found a Troma-type audience. A stop-motion musical sure sounds like an awful lot of work, compared to all that.
Live Freaky, Die Freaky! didn’t find release until 2006, but I’m sure I heard about it when I was still in high school. Being a feature-length, low-budget stop-motion musical, it most likely took way longer to finish than that brief punk boom’s legs, and it found very limited release. Its voice cast is a who’s-who of 2003’s most beloved punk rockers, from Rancid’s Tim Armstrong (whose own Hellcat Records produced the film under the probably-never-to-be-used-again Hellcat Films shingle) to Green Day’s Billy Joe Armstrong while also encompassing less iconic figures like all of the members of Travis Barker’s ill-fated punk-rap outfit Transplants or reality TV star Kelly Osbourne. To top it off, it merges California skate-punk attitude to the story of Charles Manson, the thing I was second-most obsessed with in my teens (the first was boobs). Sitting down to watch this now, so many years removed from the time where this could possibly have been the greatest thing I have ever seen was bittersweet. On one hand, I could see it with a clear mind and many extra years of cultural appreciation behind me to properly inform my views. On the other, I was setting myself up for extreme disappointment and possible despondence over the crystal-clear fact that my adolescence was even more embarrassing than I remember.
After a title card that rather pompously rates the film X – Not For The Easily Offended, we open on a man roaming the desert wastelands of post-apocalyptic Los Angeles. As narrator Tim Armstrong explains, this nomad is one of the few remaining humans on Earth. As he scavenges for food and answers to the nature of his own existence, he finds a tattered copy of Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter. Having never come across books in the wasteland of his existence, he interprets the book as a kind of Bible (he’s never come across books but knows how to read, apparently). The focus then turns to Hadie (voiced by Theo Kogan of the Lunachicks) as she explains to two sweaty, mutated pig fetus interrogators (voiced by Benji and Joel Madden, of course) how she became involved with the Manson family.
It should be pretty evident by the lack of bank robberies, fart jokes and slumming character actors that Live Freaky, Die Freaky! is pretty different from the types of movies I usually cover here. I’d like to say that it’s experimental and original, but it’s really mostly just a tonal hodgepodge with an aesthetic somewhere between Team America, Rammstein music videos and Emily the Strange handbags. Roecker seems more concerned with form over content, favouring long sequences of trippy visuals over narrative cohesiveness and joke construction.
Case in point: Hadie’s story begins with her tripping on LSD in her San Francisco apartment. She sits around and imagines a swastika made out of dicks until Charlie Hanson (voiced by Billy Joe Armstrong of Green Day, who delivers his dialogue in a strangely perverse James Brown-like tone) barges into her apartment, blathers some shit about God and has sex with her in what’s probably the second most graphic puppet sex scene since the aforementioned Team America (but definitely the longest of the two). Within the same thirty seconds of dialogue a character can spout some flowery Manson-esque statements about God and rebirth, scream ‘Suck my dick, woman!’ and burst into song. Because Live Freaky, Die Freaky! is all of the aforementioned things, but it’s also a musical. A pretty decent one, too. The musical sequences are pretty much the only time the movie keeps focus for more than a minute; most of the songs are played relatively straight and never interrupted with a shot of Manson’s erection flopping around to the beat of the music (this does happen in the film, however). Despite the film’s punk-rock roots, the music is more of the standard show-tuney variety and not half bad. Comparisons to the work of Matt Stone and Trey Parker are inevitable; while there’s nothing in here that’s half as great as Freedom Isn’t Free, the comparison is definitely favourable. Unlike Parker and Stone’s particular brand of juvenilia, though, Roecker’s sense of humor never serves to make a clever (or, I suppose, aggressively libertarian) point but instead contents itself with base-level shock tactics.
Charlie and his family are living out in the desert and dumpster-diving for food when they come across a rich, pampered Beverly Hills woman who delights in destroying the environment named Sharon Hate (voiced by rich, pampered Beverly Hills rock progeny Kelly Osbourne, although her level of environment-destroying-related glee is undocumented) and her gay hairdresser pal Hay (voiced by Davey Havok of AFI). The rich, horrible people make fun of the dumpster-diving hippies enough to cause Charlie to convince the girls that killing the rich people and spreading their blood everywhere will prevent other rich celebrities from moving into their desert wasteland. They break into the house and murder everyone involved in the endless coke party/orgy (including Habagail Folger, voiced by Asia Argento).
As I mentioned up top, a stop-motion musical is probably one of the more ambitious projects one could take on, so it’s completely baffling that Live Freaky, Die Freaky! is so scattershot and perpetually on the brink of collapse. The amount of work necessary to get a single second of movement is a huge commitment; here, it looks as tossed off and rough-around-the-edges as a Troma movie. Chances are the production took place over several months, if not years, and it shows in the piecemeal way the story and jokes are constructed. The voice actors seem to have been picked based on cred rather than talent and often seem to be completely in the dark about what they’re playing; apart from Billie Joe’s baffling but certainly interesting choice to bark out his lines like a funk god, most of the voices float ethereally over the footage like the world’s most profane PBS special.
But really, the biggest problem with Live Freaky, Die Freaky! is that it tries so damn hard to freak out the squares with a non-stop barrage of juvenile humour and glorification of the Manson family. I suppose if I was Sharon Tate’s great-nephew or some shit I might take umbrage to the way it depicts a horrible tragedy, but the relentless barrage of flopping dicks, blowjobs, snowmen made out of shit (I think that’s what it was, but who knows, honestly), exaggerated sarcasm (“You’re such an inspiration to us all. So fucking unselfish. So not a fucking cunt like all the rest.”) and people calling each other cumsponges somewhat lessens the biting satire. Obviously I have nothing against lowbrow humour but there is such a thing as too much and it happens way too early in the film’s very short runtime. There’s a good fifteen minutes of puppets sitting around, barely moving, explaining why getting fucked in the ass by mongoloids is more wonderful than getting fucked by a European. Of course I wasn’t expecting Dr. Strangelove but there’s no mistaking this for anything but cheap yuks.
So why does it exist?
Provided that you can appreciate the film’s Tim-Burton-barfing-up-Rankin-Bass-in-a-Hot-Topic visual aesthetic (and I kinda do), Live Freaky, Die Freaky! is certainly a lot of fun to look at. It would serve beautifully as the visual dressing to a DJ night or something (certainly more appropriate than Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which is inexplicably a Montreal staple) where its anarchic structure and constant barrage of papier-mâché cocks could be fully exploited by drunken, horny twenty-somethings who’ve migrated from Rancid to Animal Collective. Plus, there’s something kind of punk rock about getting rich-ass rock stars (granted, this was pre-resurrection Green Day) to voice your commentary on the superficiality of Hollywood. I didn’t really like Live Freaky, Die Freaky! but I certainly admired all the work that went into it.
I’m afraid Live Freaky, Die Freaky! is too little, too late as far as I’m concerned. Considering it borrows liberally from so many things I’ve outgrown (Manson, SoCal punk rock, South Park), I’m not surprised I didn’t respond to it in a more positive way. I was expecting a bit of a nostalgic twinge somewhere down the line, but nothing. It makes me feel vaguely embarrassed but proud, like re-reading an essay from high school or watching the godawful home movies my friends and I used to make. It’s much too early for me to proclaim my own old-fartitude, but the fact that I’ve wanted to see Live Freaky, Die Freaky! for at least six fucking years is akin to staring my own mortality in the face. I’m over this, but somewhere, there’s a sullen kid with bad skin hot-gluing studs to a pair of plaid pants who’s gonna have a hearty chuckle amidst the relentless masturbation. That’s why Live Freaky, Die Freaky! exists and, if you ask me, it’s a lofty enough goal.