A legendary document of 101 cool in the pre-Inspired by Iceland era, rockumentary ‘Rokk í Reykjavík’ (1982) captures the ascendancy of a generation of young Icelanders taking American and British influences for granted, and moving beyond them to forge a pop culture parallel to international trends, while still authentically local.
The first feature-length film by Friðrik Þór Friðriksson, a major figure in the aesthetic and infrastructural development of Icelandic cinema, ‘Rokk í Reykjavík’ profiles the punk and New Wave scene then emerging in downtown’s dingy basement clubs, and in semi-derelict old movie theatres and suburban dance halls. There are interviews, in which band members hold forth on issues of the day—stagnant left-wing politics; drugs; the DIY spirit—but the film consists mostly of performances, both live gigs and full-band rehearsals for the camera. ‘Rokk í Reykjavík’ was filmed over the winter of ’81 and ’82 in vacant industrial spaces converted to practise studios; all-ages venues and sit-down nightclubs with tablecloths on the tables; anarchist crash pads with soundproofing egg crates on the ceilings and Sharpie’d graffiti on the walls; and, climactically, at Lækjartorg, on an outdoor stage, where the crowd wears leather and clothespins with scarves and ski parkas, a look that will be familiar anyone who’s seen ‘We Are the Best!’
An Armed Forces Radio DJ is seen early in the film, spinning Loverboy, and the shadow of postwar rock ‘n’ roll, sent out from the NATO base to the impressionable citizens of Keflavík, still lingers via some very Deep Purplish riffs from the older bands (as, indeed, it still lingers in the 50s Coca-Cola kitsch dominating Prikið’s décor). But the first-wave punk vibe is far stronger, notably in the Mark E. Smith-influenced vocal contortions of Purrkur Pillnikk’s Einar Örn Benediktsson, the future Sugarcubes cofounder and Bad Taste Records tastemaker who had already spent time in London, making connections that would lead to future opportunities as the ‘Rokk í Reykjavík’ generation came of age and formed and reformed new projects.
Bubbi Morthens, already a rising celebrity, sports leather pants and studded wristband, mugging through “Sieg Heil” and “Breyttir Tímar” (“Changing Times”) with his second band Egó, and slouching suggestively as he holds forth in interviews. Ragnhildur Gísladóttir’s all-girl Grýlurnar are here as is the Siouxsie sass of Q4U. Provocations abound: performance-art act Bruni BB decapitate live chickens with a paper cutter until the cops show up to turn on the lights; semi-legendary Þeyr perform some Ian Curtis fanfic, goose-stepping around Bessastaðir in Nazi regalia in time to their own jittery postpunk. “Bjarni Mohawk,” the fifteen-year-old lead singer of Sjálfsfróun (“Masturbation”), attacks his bass on stage with a hatchet, and smokes in his interview, as he holds forth on huffing and getting hassled by bus drivers. (His scenes were censored when the film aired on state television.)
But the movie’s biggest star is another teenager. Playing with Tappi Tíkarrass, sixteen-year-old Björk Guðmundsdóttir is dressed up in a pinafore, with baby-doll red cheeks and a lolly; she giggles and playfully dances with her bandmates—and then she starts singing. Her voice is still a teenage girl’s voice, but also recognizably Björk’s—that howl of depth and agency, a command to take her whims seriously as innovation. Though ‘Rokk í Reykjavík’ shows Icelandic music’s continuity with its past and future, it’s also the first major showcase for a single already fully-formed genius.