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FILM REVIEW: Lydia Lunch – The War is Never Over – Sheffield DocFest

Reviewer: Rich Jevons

Director: Beth B

Cinematography: Peter Gordon, Beth B

In Beth B’s seminal biopic right from the offset Lydia Lunch is open about her traumatic childhood. She sees her work as ‘an indictment’ against her abusive father, patriarchy in general, her country (USA), and (of course) God the Father too. The film reveals how the No Wave movement was a product of its generation, a reaction to the Vietnam War, the Manson murders, Watergate and the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Lunch landed in early 70s New York and witnessed Suicide and Mars at the Mothers Club, inspiring her to form Teenage Jesus & the Jerks. The scene is described as a rebellion against classic rock, with Lunch explaining her ‘personal aggression and insanity’. The idea of No Wave was to ‘wipe everything off the slate’ and we see archive footage of early Lunch gigs, described as ‘engaging and terrifying’.

As well as her musical performances the film includes Lunch’s spoken word and performance art, though the three genres are somewhat intertwined. Her subjects include the imbalance of power, dystopia, the pains of love and lust, and murder. Her project Retrovirus is a retrospective of her work over the last forty years. Some of it borders on hard core porn, such as The Right Side of My Brain, a film by Richard Kern who aims to ‘smash it up, back to anarchy’.

One of her infamous collaborators Jim Thirwell (Foetus) describes Lunch’s ‘unquenchable need for more’, whether it be sex, drugs or booze, but Lunch does not want to continue the cycle of abuse from her childhood, being ‘homicidal not suicidal’. She is so aware of the power of sex and its danger, frequently choosing random partners for her orgiastic debauchery. Although this may all seem incredibly confrontational, she claims not to think of her work as shocking or to have a response at all.

We are told how the No Wave movement was instrumental for Lunch suggesting there was not only no future but no present either. In the punk community in New York’s Lower East Side drugs and alcohol were more prevalent than food. It was a place where anything goes, and Lunch’s promiscuity is well documented here, as ‘damaged people got together, all fighting the same demons’.

Beth B’s documentary is incisive and compelling if at times disturbing and chaotic but true to its subject. Accompanied at Sheffield DocFest by a Q&A with Lunch and crime writer Cathy Unsworth, Lunch gave a brilliant reading of the No Wave scene, describing the ‘glorious squalor’ and ‘drug-fuelled art terrorism’, while citing the Dadaists as predecessors.

The fact that the documentary has so much original archive footage is down to Lunch’s determination to ‘document everything and own it’. She talked about her collaborators such as Roland S Howard (Birthday Party) and Mark Cunningham (Mars) with great affection while her view of the US is one of intense hatred for its ‘hypocrisy, lies, colonialism and anti-democracy’.

The screening included an early look at Lunch’s own forthcoming documentary, ‘Artist Depression Anxiety Rage’ which is exactly what it says on the tin. She has interviewed creatives who discuss their mental health (a term she hates) in ways that is both ‘heartbreaking and heartwarming’. It is the first time she has gone outside herself in a project, admitting ‘I’ve done enough about me’. So, the film is an attempt to ‘heal the wounded’ with an anticipated official screening at next year’s Sheffield DocFest.

Reviewed on 6th June 2021 at Sheffield DocFest

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Mark Clegg. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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