It’s not that Martin Scorsese’s most recent opus, The Wolf of Wall Street needs yet another review or another debate on whether it’s misogynist. It’s the attempt by the film’s star, perennial Scorsese muse Leonardo DiCaprio, to qualify it and Scorsese as “punk rock” that drew our ire and forced our pens.
Punk rock (or punk), as we 40- and 50-somethings grew up with it, originally designated the purposeful ugly outsider in culture and society. It connoted a rage against the machine, and the riposte of the casteless, voiceless and marginalized to the self-appointed Brahmins of music, fashion, literature and other dominant calibrators of the wider Western consumerist-driven zeitgeist.
Punk attitude arguably began with rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s, enjoyed a definitive political period in the mid-1970s as a volatile instrument of class warfare, continually reinvented itself throughout the 1980s as a suburban rite of passage against a Reagan-rechristened corporate America and returned in the 1990s with grrrl bands such as Hole, Bikini Kill, Babes in Toyland and Lunachicks, who fused strategic performances of ugliness with a trenchant send-up of conventional codes of “pretty” femininity and domesticity.
Punk songs were written by refreshingly hideous-looking garage bands with broken instruments and, quite often, an inability to play music (at least at first). Punk was egalitarian in spirit, featuring a do-it-yourself aesthetic as a means of exorcising one’s externally conditioned demons.
By contrast, Wolf carried a $100 million budget, features The Most Attractive Actor In Hollywood, had an aggressive marketing effort backing it and was produced by former investment bankers and a vertically integrated studio that deferred sheepishly to Martin Scorsese as Hutts yielded to Jabba.
Punk songs of the 1970s were purposefully raw and concise—an answer to the hyper-produced seven-plus-minute indulgences of such corpulent corporate bands as The Eagles, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, Rush and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. The three-hour redundant profligacy of Wolf is more akin cinematically to excesses of the pre-punk period including “Tarkus” by E, L & P, “Inferno” by Metamorfosi and “Starship Trooper” by Yes.
Not only did punk value brevity, it outright rejected the sociopolitical and economic status quo. Openly critical of bourgeois morality and amorality, punk sought to upend dominant cultural values and unsettle the mainstream. Conversely, Wolf proffers a trite, masculinist narrative of rags-to-riches “success” in America. Despite the filmmakers’ expression of intent to position the film as “warning,” and their defense of its exhausting, relentless imagery as simply a mirror for the soullessness of the characters portrayed, Wolf aims to capture a wide audience precisely by articulating an ejaculatory fantasy of the male, moneyed elite.
If Wolf qualifies as a “punk rock film,” then we have reached a cultural moment at which punk is devoid of meaning, reduced to crass commercial form in which the very possibility of rebellion signifies absolutely nothing. For Wolf does nothing to reject contemporary morality. Instead, it endorses values of fear-driven greed, exploitation, hyper-consumption, hubris, misogyny and sociopathy. DiCaprio’s characterization of the film as punk suggests that we have reached the limits of our cultural ability to imagine the genuinely seditious in commercial art.
You want a true punk rock movie? Watch Steve McQueen’s Shame, which tackles uncomfortable subjects—online pornography and sex addiction. Shame made audiences necessarily distraught, but not because it lacked irony while presenting a punishing overabundance of debauchery imagery.
By contrast, Wolf plows away at a well-worn category that now rivals the banality of, well, gangster movies. The greed genre is done. Films like Wall Street I and II, Boiler Room, Margin Call, Glengarry Glen Ross, The Prime Gig, Rogue Trader, Arbitrage, The Company Men, The Social Network, et al. have already accomplished plenty over the past three decades in showing the dangers of runaway avarice alongside its enticements. One of us worked in an actual financial “boiler room” in the financial services sector, where memorable lines from Boiler Room and Glengarry Glen Ross were quoted in the office to arouse the sales force. It is painful to consider what additional scripts Wolf will add to that arsenal of corporate trench-warfare lexicon.
As social movement, musical intervention and historical pause, punk stages deliberate flight from stultifying, corporatized visions of “taste,” “value” and “success,” as well as bourgeois incitements to conformity that permeated the collective unconscious, especially in the 1970s’ U.S. and U.K. Punk interrupts tired, recycled narratives in favor of insurgent flights of imagination, launched with acerbic wit and tongue-in-cheek awareness that “if we keep speaking the same language, we’re going to reproduce the same history.”
Rather than equating “punk rock” film-making with the film’s superficial shock value alone, DiCaprio and Scorsese might have dared to expose the raw edges of a collective cultural psyche that idolizes and exploits the most profound form of colonization imaginable: a subconscious frenzy of self-loathing molded by the mainstream media and wider advertising milieu.
Wolf thus misses a vital opportunity to engage with the core fear to which Belfort himself attests in his memoir: the fear of not belonging. Of inadequacy versus the WASPy lifestyle Belfort felt he’d never be allowed to access. Wolf also manages to hint at the corporate culture in Hollywood—of a systemic sycophancy so imbedded that no one dare question the claimed integrity of the creative endeavor at hand, lest they endanger their jobs. That, too, is far removed from the punk ethos.
To the extent that Hollywood remains a boys’ club, Scorsese’s latest cinematic journey echoes not as punk rock but as symptomatic of the costs of belonging to a creative community in which certain voices, vision, and stories—namely those that will not attract A-list talent or be perceived as sexy enough to generate box office receipts—are excluded because they remain too “costly” to express.
Indeed, the commercial success of Wolf reveals the inner workings of a corporate myth-making machine that suppresses the very possibility of genuinely alternative storytelling. By repeating ad nauseum tales of men who cling tenaciously to psychologically bankrupt visions of success, Hollywood inspires reverence for those who have “made it,” achieved belonging or gained entry in the most conventional sense conceivable.
Quintessential outcasts, the truly “punk rock” innovate in the margins of society. Many opt to linger on the fringes of the mainstream because they rightly perceive the price of belonging as too high.