In the early 1990s at the University of Florida in Gainesville, the most popular general education class by far was Exceptional People. Serving as an introduction to the growing diversity of the American population, students were introduced to a variety of physical, mental, and emotional disabilities and the unique challenges that each one presents. During the semester, groups of students could be seen wandering campus alternately wearing blindfolds and being guided by the elbow, or wearing outrageous mismatched clothing in an effort to attract attention while wearing a sign reading simply, "I'm Unique." Being stared at and ridiculed, students quickly learned empathy for those living with such issues, as well as ways to interact both socially and professionally with the disabled. It is this sense of empathy that is generated over the 90 minutes of The Punk Syndrome.
The film tells the story and follows the exploits of Finland's self-proclaimed "best rock band" (regardless of, at the time, not having recorded one note of music). The four men that comprise Pertti Kurikka's Name Day are all learning-disabled in some form: Namesake guitarist Pertti has cerebral palsy and vocalist Kari Aalto is autistic; while rhythm section Sami Helle (bass) and Toni Valitalo (drums) both have Down's Syndrome. This is not your typical rock documentary.
Which is obvious from the opening scenes of the film. Getting ready for a show at a local venue, we see the members in various states of preparation and undress. Drummer Toni is seen going to the bathroom, then turns around and mugs for the camera with his ever-present wide grin. He happily proclaims, "My shirt says â??Dammit'!" and is ready to Rock. Guitarist Pertti, however, has more odorous issues that the band's friend and manager feels need to be addressed immediately. A brief discussion ensues, with Pertti finally relenting to clean up before taking the stage. Once in front of the audience, vocalist Kari wails out songs dealing with his feelings of alienation and desire to be treated like anyone else. Seeing this man passionately singing "I don't want to live in any group home/I don't want to live in an institution â?¦. I want some respect and human dignity in life" gives the viewer only the first of many glimpses into these men's hearts and minds.
Band rehearsals are shown with the same laughs and squabbles that would be found in any rehearsal space. When Pertti becomes particularly frustrated with his guitar part, Sami affectionately puts his arm around Pertti's shoulder telling his friend, "Don't worry. You'll get it." Later on, when Kari is told he must go to the pedicurist with Sami, he becomes enraged and grabs the microphone improvising furious lyrics about how he hates "fucking pedicurists".
But while The Punk Syndrome uses the band as its centerpiece, the focus on the four men's personal lives is where the film truly shines. The viewer goes to Pertti's "Rock â??n Roll Birthday Party", and feels his disappointment when one of his bandmembers doesn't show up. Drummer Toni is seen at various points with his parents talking about the pros and cons of moving out of the family home and into a group home. When Toni's heart is broken by Liisa, a resident at the home, we feel his heartbreak as well. When Kari announces his engagement to his longtime girlfriend ("She's chubby enough"), we share in his joy along with his friends. And when Sami's pants fall down at a strongman competition (after being asked if his pants were securely fastened), we laugh along with the rest. This is the greatest strength of the film. By focusing so strongly on the four men as individuals, the viewer is able to see a bit of himself in each of them. Who hasn't had their heart broken? Who doesn't want to be treated as an equal? Who doesn't want to find love and be loved?
Since the beginning, punk has always been music for outsiders, now even moreso. The Punk Syndrome also shows that those outsiders are just like everyone else, too.