Inside Green Day's Epic New East Bay Punk Doc

Billie Joe Armstrong and director Corbett Redford reflect on the tight-knit scene chronicled in new film 'Turn It Around'

Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong and director Corbett Redford discuss how they chronicled the East Bay punk scene in new doc 'Turn It Around.' Credit: Murray Bowles

On any given weekend during the late Eighties and early Nineties, the craziest and most diverse live shows in the Bay Area were usually happening at 924 Gilman, West Berkeley's legendary all-ages punk venue.

"Gwar and Operation Ivy – I was at that show!" says Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong, recalling one particularly infamous pairing from 1989. "We played on some of the strangest bills, too. We were kids in this little pop-punk band, and we played with the Dwarves, one of the world's most dangerous bands at the time. There would be some avant-garde artist that would come up and make this Yoko Ono type of noise. And then there was the Church of Frank Moore, which was this quadriplegic guy in a wheelchair, and naked people basically having sex onstage. And they were the opening act," he laughs. "But under the roof of Gilman, it all made sense!"

The rich legacy of 924 Gilman – a nonprofit, devoutly DIY club which has spawned, nurtured and inspired a dizzying array of punk and punk-influenced artists since first opening its doors on New Year's Eve 1986 – is the central focus of Turn It Around: The Story of East Bay Punk, a sprawling new documentary produced and directed by Corbett Redford, and executive-produced by Green Day. Now showing at select theaters nationwide, the two-and-a-half–hour film features narration by punk godfather Iggy Pop, animation directed by Tim Armstrong of Rancid, interviews with such world-famous East Bay scenesters as Green Day, Rancid, Michael Franti and Miranda July – as well as lesser-known but crucial figures like Kamala Parks and Robert Eggplant – and tons of previously unreleased live footage.

"It took a lot of digging to put together," says first-time director Redford, who began work on the film nearly four years ago. "We ended up compiling 35,000 archived photos and flyers, 500 hours of vintage live footage and another 500 hours of interviews with over 185 people."

The project first began to take shape in September 2013, when Armstrong called up Redford in search of particular Green Day live footage from 1991. "There was this guy from a band called Public Humiliation, and he always had a video camera with him," Armstrong explains. "I remember him taking some great backyard party stuff of us in West Oakland, and I asked Corbett to get in touch with him. Not only did Corbett get that, but he suddenly started getting all this other footage; there was some stuff from Operation Ivy that came in, and it started to snowball, so I talked to him and said, 'Why don't we try to do a real documentary capturing the scene?' We just started talking, and coming up with different key people that we should talk to."

"Billie said, 'We're looking to make a movie about our early days, and I'm wondering if you know anyone who could do it,'" Redford laughs. "And I said, 'Yeah – me!' They had kind of a grasp on what I was capable of doing, since I had been making underground art and music for close to 25 years, and I'm kind of known for taking on wild projects with little to no means. I'm so happy they gave me the shot!"

Redford, a presence at the Gilman collective since the mid-Nineties as a musician – he co-founded the long-running folk-punk band Bobby Joe Ebola and the Children McNuggets – and volunteer, was tapped to direct the film precisely because of his long-running involvement in the East Bay scene. "For years, I've been watching other documentaries about punk rock scenes," says Armstrong, "and I always thought, 'Man, it would be really cool to do a documentary capturing what it was like to be in our scene.' But I was always ambivalent, because our scene is so unique; it's very underground, and people were very protective of that culture.

"When Green Day first got big, it was always so hard for me to talk about this. People would say, 'So, you're into the Buzzcocks and the Clash.' Well, yeah, of course – who isn't? [Laughs] Those are wonderful bands, but that's not my scene; that's not where I come from. But when they'd ask me to explain, I always thought of that Germs song, 'What We Do Is Secret' – I can't really talk about that. It's like Fight Club, you know?

"So I told [Redford], 'You're the perfect guy to do this, because you come from our community and people trust you; it's not a Hollywood thing, it's not an MTV thing. All voices will be heard.' I felt that, if you're a Green Day fan, you're going to find out more about Green Day by hearing these people's stories, not ours."

Armstrong felt it was important to capture the spirit of the scene, as well as its music. "It was such a great thing to come from," he says. "Not only Gilman, but the people throwing parties in their backyards and garages. There was a time period with punk rock where it was practically illegal, where no clubs would book bands because they were always afraid of violence and being shut down. Punk had a reputation for being nihilistic, but this scene was more about, 'Let's keep it going and keep it together.' It was about all these different contributors – people who wrote these great fanzines, like Aaron Cometbus and Janelle [Hessig] from Blarg and Miranda July. Those people were actually more important to the scene than the bands were, because they were the ones that kept us all glued together in a lot of ways."

One such pivotal figure highlighted in Turn It Around is writer, activist and musician Robert Burnett, better known around the Gilman scene as Eggplant. Guitarist of the band Blatz, Eggplant also wrote and published the influential fanzine Absolutely Zippo, and put on some legendary shows in his Pinole backyard, including the one where Sweet Children (Armstrong and Mike Dirnt's pre–Green Day outfit) first really caught the ear of the local scenesters.

"All roads lead to Eggplant for me," says Armstrong. "We were high school buddies, and he was the guy who said, 'Come play my backyard party.' He was always going to shows, always writing his fanzine, and really involved with Gilman; and he was always the guy who would come up and say, 'How's your band doing?' These guys were pushing for you to create something and get involved. And it wasn't like, 'I'm going to promote your band.' It was, 'I want your band to be involved in what we're doing, to make our scene cooler, more diverse and more interesting.'"

While the documentary makes room for everyone from fanzine writers and club bookers to hardcore progenitors Fang and the feminist rap trio Yeastie Girlz, there's still plenty of Green Day in the mix, including live footage from the band's early days, and stories of them locking horns with Gilman co-founder Tim Yohannan, who initially thought the band was too "poppy" to play the venue.

"We definitely had our grievances with Tim Yohannan and [his fanzine] Maximum Rocknroll," says Armstrong, "and they definitely had 'em about us. But he gave me a place to play music when I was a 16-year-old, and I'm eternally grateful for that."

Yohannan, who died in 1998, was a both a galvanizing and polarizing figure on the scene.

"There's a lot of love for Tim Yohannan in the film," says Redford. "People have told me, 'If you knew him, you loved him – and if you knew him, you fought with him,' During our cast-and-crew screening a few months back, someone in the film mentioned Tim's name, and someone in the audience yelled out, 'Fuck you!'"

While Armstrong stipulated that Turn It Around should avoid any internecine bickering ("I said, 'I don't want to hear anybody's grievances; all I want to see is contribution'"), he wasn't shy about having the film touch upon the backlash that Green Day and other East Bay bands received from the staunchly independent scene after signing with major labels. Founded on a platform banning all drugs, alcohol, violence, racism, sexism and homophobia from the venue, 924 Gilman additionally banned all major-label bands following Green Day's defection from local indie Lookout Records. "In an early cut, Corbett sort of played down the part about the major labels coming," Armstrong recalls. "And I said, 'No, no, no – I want more of it! Bring it on!'"

Even so, Armstrong believes that the East Bay scene's anger over his band signing to Warner Bros. wasn't as widespread or virulent as it was portrayed at the time. "There was a very vocal few that sort of blew it out of proportion and we felt it," he says. "But I think the majority of the people in the scene were wrapped up in their own lives, and doing their own thing, you know? Most people were just like, 'You're going your way, and I'm going my way.'"

Redford says that the film really gained momentum once Rancid/Operation Ivy leader Tim Armstrong got involved. "Rancid hadn't done press in ages," he explains. "Tim and Billie have a friendship, but I didn't really task Billie with booking people for the film; so I wrote to Tim's managers, and they had some questions for me. But I'm also on the fundraising board at Gilman Street, and Tim's brother Jeff is a financial officer there. He had heard about the project and was excited about it, and I said to him, 'We're trying to get in touch with your brother about participating – Operation Ivy is kind of the flagship band of early Gilman.' He said, 'I'll put in a word,' and suddenly I got a phone call from Tim.

"So Tim came in, and then slowly people like Robert Eggplant and Kamala Parks, Jesse Michaels, Dave Mello – all of these people who helped make that early scene were suddenly working on the film as production assistants, helping us go through archives. If I had questions about accuracy or stuff that happened, they were in the office doing clerical work or drawing or whatever. So suddenly, the purveyors of this culture are helping me bring this thing into the world."

Lending additional punk-rock gravitas to the documentary are the dulcet tones of Iggy Pop, who serves as the film's narrator. "That was pretty awesome," says Redford of working with the legendary Stooges frontman. "We had a five-hour cut of the film, and Billie and I were debating whether to do it as a series; we decided no, our hearts were set on a film. So I thought that, in order to condense five hours [down into a film], we'd need a narrator. We didn't want someone from within the scene; we wanted to get an outsider. I thought of Tom Waits, because he was a Santa Rosa guy; but a couple of days later Billie Joe said, 'What about Iggy? We were his backing band for a few songs on [2003's] Skull Ring – let me reach out to him.'

"Before I knew it, I was on the phone with him, and we were collaborating on the script. He had some ideas about the phrasing, and he listened to a lot of this music that he hadn't heard before. He was the perfect guy for it."

The film is currently "on tour" with Green Day through September 18th, with special screenings scheduled to coincide with the band's live dates. "The idea is that people can go see Green Day and rock out," says Redford. "And then, if they want to know more about how this band came to be, as people and as artists, they can hit up a theater and watch this film."

"I don't think this could have been made 10 years ago," says Armstrong of Turn It Around. "I think this is the right time, where people really wanted to share. And I think that people know that we have the best interests of the scene at heart. And I think what's really cool and unique about this is that everybody's still involved, and people are still doing stuff. People are still musicians and they're playing, and they're doing it for reasons that are not about getting paid or trying to be a struggling rock star. There's so many people from the scene who have become painters or educators or activists. There's still vitality from the older people, and it's still about trying to get younger people involved at the same time. So I think that's what sets us apart from what's happened in other scenes.

"What I've always got from documentaries [about punk scenes] is, 'The scene came, the scene died, and nothing else existed after that.' I think this is one of the first documentaries that truly inspires the next generation to take it and do their own thing with it. And it's their own thing: It's like, 'You don't owe us anything – you owe it to yourself.'"