In 1975, travelers arriving at LaGuardia Airport received skull-emblazoned pamphlets that cautioned them to “stay away from New York City if you possibly can.” But ’70s NYC also attracted a burgeoning community of transgressive artists, writers, and musicians. Among them was performer and provocateur Lydia Lunch, now the subject of fellow No Wave artist Beth B’s documentary Lydia Lunch: The War is Never Over.
No Wave was a brief but potent explosion of underground artistry in the Lower East Side. Drawing on this background, Beth B endows The War is Never Over with an appropriately DIY sensibility and manic, discordant energy, skillfully patching together archival footage, photographs, performances, and interviews with peers like Kembra Pfahler and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore to tell not just Lunch’s story, but also the story of late ’70s New York. Upon arrival on the No Wave scene, Lunch resolved to make the “angriest but most precise” music she could.
Refreshingly, the documentary isn’t a retrospective of Lunch’s former glory, but a celebration of her still-active artistry, looking at her band Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, her cinematic collaborations with Richard Kern, and her recent Retrovirus tour. After nearly five decades on the stage, she shows no signs of waning, and exudes a gravitas earned over time. The War is Never Over is not hagiographic; Lunch is as outspoken about her flaws as she is about everything else. But it does emphasize the lessons other women artists might glean from her life, chief among them to boldly pursue their desires. “I will do exactly what I want to do every moment,” she says with forceful, unfiltered conviction, “As I feel everyone should.”
Lydia Lunch: The War is Never Over opens in select theaters June 30.
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