Lydia Lunch performing, in a scene from the documentary “The War Is Never Over.” Photo courtesy of Kino Marquee

“Short, sharp, precise stabs of brutal precision.”

That’s how Lydia Lunch describes the music of her long-ago first band, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. And while the now 62-year-old singer, poet and self-empowerment guru has fronted many different outfits throughout her four-plus decades of making music (8-Eyed Spy, 13:13, Queen of Siam, Retrovirus), that description could fit the entire body of Lunch’s work, as well as the new documentary about her by director Beth B, “Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over.” 

Streaming through Portland’s Apohadion Theater until the end of July, the documentary comes in at a brisk but bruising 77 minutes. That might seem like too short a running time to encompass Lydia Lunch, especially as uninitiated viewers learn more about her and the harrowingly eventful maelstrom that’s been her life. But, honestly, it’s a perfect length. Like Lunch’s music, a little is all that’s recommended to take in one sitting. 

Born to an abusive family in upstate New York, the then-16-year-old Lunch hopped a bus to an apocalyptically decrepit New York City in 1975. Toting her suitcase into a club, Lunch quickly seduced the singer of the bad rock band on the stage, moved into the band’s squalid digs and threw herself into the city’s burgeoning punk scene, eventually fronting her own band, the provocatively named Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. Pictures at the time show Lunch as a shockingly young, smudge-faced screamer in tattered fishnets and lingerie, or, in Lunch’s own present-day assessment, “a black-haired, traumatizing, sadistic, baby-faced killer.” 

As the film lays out with unapologetic matter-of-factness worthy of its subject, that assessment isn’t just noise. Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, who befriended the 5-foot-tall teenaged Lunch, proclaims, with all seriousness, “There was no one more dangerous” in a punk scene housed in the decaying wasteland that was the 1970s Lower East Side. As Lunch herself puts it of her uncompromising presence, “I was a successful predator.”

Punk was all about rebellion, and most present-day punk documentaries are about how that rebellion failed, or mellowed. “The War is Never Over” is an apt title for B’s film, however, as Lydia Lunch has never stopped railing against a world that continues to act as tormentor, especially for women. For one thing, Lunch’s métier wasn’t punk but “no-wave,” a genre marked by deliberate discordance and a “user-unfriendly” atonality. Basically, no-wavers thought punk, for all its fury, was too invested in sounding like music, whereas Lunch’s goal was (and is), “to make some of the angriest, yet most precise, bitter music which was just a scream from the bowels of caterwaul.” As Lunch explains in the film, “This was me exorcising my hatred and anger.”

Anyone who’s listened to Lydia Lunch’s music over the years knows that’s not an exaggeration. And viewers of “Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over” discover that Lunch’s still roaring hatred and rage come from a profoundly real place. The film begins with the warning, “The following film discusses assault, child abuse, and mature situations,” so this review will offer up the same at this point. Lunch’s first story in the film is a terrifying anecdote about her being kidnapped at gunpoint by a man with very bad (if strange) intentions, an experience which Lunch says taught her very young that “It’s not about sex, it’s about power.” Sexually abused by her father from childhood until her flight to New York, the singer portrays herself as “the great avenger of every woman against men.” 

The film unpacks Lunch’s singular style (or music and existence) in raw but filthily eloquent terms. Examining the explosive mix of anger and sexuality that’s marked her music and life, Lunch thoughtfully admits to finding exorcism in aggression and rage. (One unsettlingly erotic spoken word piece emerges with Lunch’s voice sounding eerily like Mercedes McCambridge’s raspy demon voice from “The Exorcist.”) Shown onstage relentlessly both mocking and enticing a male concertgoer with a barrage of sexualized abuse, Lydia Lunch exercises her power to shock and attract, all in service of her relentless, unfathomable needs. Unflinchingly describing how her father’s abuse and a lifetime of misogynist hostility opened her eyes to the ugly cruelty seemingly bred into the male of the species, Lunch explains, with painful clarity, “What you need is the tenderness you were denied as a child, but, as a defense mechanism, if you’re not going to get it, you will look for something monstrous.”

For all her admirable ferociousness, Lydia Lunch isn’t here to provide reassurance, or pat solutions. The film shows Lunch’s ever-thorny anger turn on everyone from the Hollywood actresses who – in her eyes – accepted their abuse by powerful men, to Hillary Clinton for – again, according to Lunch – simply aping the genocidal, warlike posture of her male predecessors. Stories from admiring musicians yet depict how Lunch’s unique mixture of sexuality and hostility can leave very real marks on everyone around her, while the singer’s own self-awareness about her own, always-on persona reveals the enduring pain that fuels her one-of-a-kind creative fire. As Donita Sparks of L7 puts it, “She’s the queen of that part of the underground, and yet she’s a misfit within it.” 

Lydia Lunch’s world has always been a vicious and merciless one, where this lone, diminutive woman successfully forged an independence born of bloody necessity. “Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over” is a short, sharp, brutal gut-punch of unwelcome enlightenment about a woman who continues to ruthlessly carve what she needs and wants from a world of seemingly bottomless pain and brutality. Enjoy.  

“Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over” is streaming through Portland’s own uncompromising Apohadion Theater until July 30. It’s $12, with part of the proceeds going to keeping the Apohadion’s lights on until this still-dangerous pandemic allows in-person screenings and concerts again. It’s unrated, but for (brave) adults only. 

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

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