By Chelsea Spear
The War Is Never Over is a compelling way to appreciate the importance of a music icon, to understand why Lydia Lunch’s work matters.
The War Is Never Over, directed by Beth B.
If Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction and rebirth, played the Stratocaster, she would probably be Lydia Lunch. For the past 40 years, Lunch has fixed her gimlet eye on how the patriarchy has hurt both men and women as well as pointing out the harm caused by war and mindless consumerism. The War Is Never Over, Beth B’s documentary on the polymathic writer and musician, takes a retrospective view of Lunch’s life and career, one that should appeal to longtime admirers and open-minded potential converts alike.
B contextualizes Lunch’s work in both her own life and in the early ’80s No Wave scene. The film opens with Lunch telling the story of how a man kidnapped her when she was 13 and forced her at gunpoint to perform sexualized acts. “It’s not about sex,” her abductor repeatedly told her. “It’s about power.” That knowledge helped Lunch understand her father’s abuse of her, and it would later inform much of her music and writing.
As a high school dropout in the late ’70s, 17-year-old Lunch took a Greyhound bus to New York. The city had just declared bankruptcy, and the teenager moved into a spare room in James Chance’s apartment on one of the more dangerous blocks on the Lower East Side. Through personal testimonies and archival footage from her collaborations, such as Richard Kern, we are given a visceral sense of how scary the East Village and Alphabet City neighborhoods were at the time, and how living in what one interviewee described as “a war zone” informed Lunch’s work. We also see how fearless she could be via an anecdote from Thurston Moore, where he talks about Lunch marking out her territory in an abandoned building.
Lunch’s willingness to engage head-on with some of the most frightening aspects of existence will surprise few. Viewers might not be as aware of her sense of humor or her tenderness. In an early scene, Lunch boasts that the men in her bands are the best-smelling males in the business, a fact that B confirms on camera. Throughout the film, her bandmates and contemporaries share small moments that show the person Lunch is offstage, as in a scene where one of her bandmates recalls losing his virginity to her.
Lunch’s vulnerability also comes through in an interview late in the documentary, when she talks about her stage persona and the toll it’s taken on her. Being “on” as much as she has been wears on a person, and when Lunch talks about “taking a detox from myself,” you ache for her. Footage from her most recent tour is no less intense than the archival clips, but viewers can also sense that there’s now a well-rounded maturity about her and from her band.
Beth B has known Lunch for almost the entire duration of their careers, and the camaraderie between filmmaker and subject is palpable. Interacting with B, Lunch seems to let down her guard, allowing for glimpses of genuine intimacy. Some of the subject matter here isn’t new, but the depth provided by the documentary gives viewers a fresh perspective on Lunch’s life and her attitude toward her art.
The editing and cinematography of The War Is Never Over suggests how film production has evolved in sophistication since the early ’80s. Acting as her own editor, B gracefully intercuts lush present-day footage of Lunch and her contemporaries with grainy clips from the no-budget movies Lunch made with B and with Richard Kern at the start of their careers. Balancing scenes from Kern’s Fingered with Lunch’s account of her abuse, the film provides insights that ’80s audiences would have missed. B’s use of animated interludes gives the film a fanzine quality; at times it comes off like a darker version of the 2018 documentary Shirkers. On the debit side, B’s use of multiple exposures and filters made the clips taken from the 2012 Retrovirus tour seem less rather than more powerful. The long shots — where you could see Lydia and her band just do their thing — worked best.
For fans of the NYC punk scene in the early ’80s, Lydia Lunch is a towering figure. For others, The War Is Never Over is a compelling way to appreciate the importance of a music icon, to understand why Lunch’s work matters.
Chelsea Spear has written for the Brattle Theatre’s Film Notes blog, the Gay & Lesbian Review, and Crooked Marquee. She lives in Boston.