Lech Kowalski’s “D.O.A.: A Right of Passage” features Sex Pistols U.S. tour footage & more

By on July 13, 2018

D.O.A. — subtitled “A Right of Passage,” which doesn’t look quite “rite” to us — is NY filmmaker Lech Kowalski‘s punk rockumentary, centered around the Sex Pistols‘ short-lived, seven-city (mostly) Southern U.S. tour.

You’ll find it streaming on Night Flight Plus.

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In addition to shooting the Pistols in mostly small clubs and rowdy bars, and Kowalski’s infamous footage of a smacked-out Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen in bed, Kowalski’s documentary also features live concert footage of the Dead Boys, Generation X, the Rich Kids, X-Ray Spex and Sham 69, along with additional music by the Clash, Iggy Pop (alternative versions of “Nightclubbing” and “Lust for Life”), and reggae great Augustus Pablo.

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D.O.A. debuted theatrically on April 10, 1981, at the legendary Waverly Theatre, in New York City’s Greenwich Village.  It was released on VHS in 1983 by Night Flight’s founder/creator, Stuart Shapiro.

“Back in 1978, when I had International Harmony,” Stuart told us, “I worked with Lech to help finish the film and set up the first theatrical release, and then, several years later, we released D.O.A. on VHS through Harmony/Vision, one the first boutique video labels.”

D.O.A. didn’t make its debut on DVD until MVD Rewind released it in December 2017 (read about it in Sean Howe’s New York Times article).

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The project was begun by High Times publisher/editor Tom Forcade, who hired Kowalksi to film the Sex Pistols — without permission from their U.S. label, Warner Bros. Records — on their U.S. tour in January 1978.

In addition to founding High Times in 1974, Forcade also ran the Underground Press Syndicate and founded an anarchist group, the Zippies, because — according to Night Flight contributor Pat Thomas in his book on Jerry Rubin — he thought the Yippies had grown old, sold out and burned out.

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Tom Forcade

Kowalski and Forcade had run-ins with promoter Bill Graham and the Pistols’ road manager, Noel Monk, and was chased off by the band’s bodyguards and by cops, who broke their expensive handheld 16mm Éclair cameras.

They ended up hiring a cameraman from a San Antonio TV station, in order to get better backstage access (it didn’t work).

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Kowalski was more interested in capturing what happened off-stage at punk concerts anyway.

He lingered around outside the venues and shot some interesting vox pop-style interviews with frustrated ticket holders and troublemakers who’d been kicked out of the clubs.

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Some of them weren’t even fans of punk music, hilariously citing their disapproval, while others were, one saying “When I saw Johnny Rotten’s face I thought I’d vomit, he’s so beautiful.”

Kowalski also flew to London to get footage of mostly British punk bands as well as interviews about punk’s effect on London’s fashion trends.

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It took two years for him to finish up D.O.A. following Forcade’s death (he committed suicide, shooting himself in the head in his Greenwich Village apartment in November 1978).

John Holmstrom, founding editor of PUNK Magazine, writes in the DVD’s liner notes about the connection between the film’s title and the similarly-titled 1950 film noir classic, noting that D.O.A. was ” about a dead man walking who wanted to get revenge on his killers.”

“This aptly describes D.O.A.: A Right of Passage, which was made by a man who killed himself a few months later, who wanted to get revenge on his tormentors: corporate and government control of rock music and youth culture.”

Read more about D.O.A.: A Right of Passage below.

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Lech Kowalski

In May 2007 — during a lengthy interview with Senses of Cinema — Lech Kowalski said that D.O.A. was a the result of “a certain kind of luck,’ because of Forcade’s suicide, and how Forcade had “wanted to make a different kind of film than I did.”

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Kowalski was able to shoot Sid & Nancy because they’d called him up, offering to appear in an interview.

Kowalski: “I was lucky that Sid and Nancy had no money and called us because they wanted to say something, and they thought we were going to pay them some money.”

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Kowalski had been thinking of making a narrative film about the NYC punk scene when he heard about the Sex Pistols touring America.

The only person who would agree to financially back a film about the Pistols tour was Tom Forcade.

The Sex Pistols at Cain’s Ballroom, Tulsa, OK, January 12, 1978 (audio from Winterland, January 14, 1978, their last show)

Kowalski learned that Forcade was traveling to Atlanta — where the Pistols were playing their first U.S. gig — in order to buy footage from a 35mm 1977 film called Polk County Pot Plane Bust, about a couple pot dealers, “Oosh” and “Boosh.” 

Forcade agreed to back Kowalski’s Pistols film if he agreed to help Forcade re-edit his Pot Plane movie.

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Kowalksi returned to the U.S. from London just a few months before Nancy Spungen was killed by Sid Vicious, which was followed shortly by Vicious’s suicide by overdose, and then Forcade’s suicide by handgun.

He finished Forcade’s Pot Plane movie, though, later called The Smugglers when it played the drive-in movie circuit.

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Kowalksi’s cinematic résumé is also filled with great films like the 1999 Johnny Thunders documentary Born to Lose: The Last Rock N’ Roll Movie, The Boot Factory (2000), and Hey is Dee Dee Home (2003), the latter two also available on Night Flight Plus.

Stuart Shapiro:I always knew that Lech had made an immortal documentary in the face of unimaginable Rock ‘n’ Roll obstacles. Glad to see time has proven his genius as a filmmaker.”

Watch D.O.A.: A Right of Passage and other Punk documentaries over on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.