Film Review: "American Hardcore"

by Hilary Crowe

Most people wouldn’t decide where to spend the next four years of life, let alone their future in academia, based upon the university’s location in one of the birth places of the most awesome musical movement to hit America’s youth, the 1980s hardcore punk movement. (It definitely helped me weed out a few inconsequential ivies and state universities.)

Then again, most people wouldn’t spend nine bucks to sit in a dark room with their dad (the only one brave enough to accompany me) and about 40 other punks-of-all-ages, mohawks expertly spiked and starched, heads freshly shorn for the occasion, drooling over grainy footage of archaic shows and an especially virile-looking Henry Rollins. Bravo for bravado, and hooray for Paul Rachman’s documentary American Hardcore.

This recently released film, based on Steven Blush’s 2001 book by the same title, tracks the development and dissolution of the original hardcore scene from 1980 to 1986. A lofty ambition, as anyone familiar with the music will attest to, but laudable that reel time finally be devoted to the subculture that spread like the plague from So Cal bars to D.C. basements. While Rachman struggles to fit dozens of bands into this postcard from that bygone era, he calls forth the innovators and visionaries of the scene to address audiences via expertly timed and placed talking head interviews.

The film opens with a rapid-fire audio-visual montage of stills and music from live hardcore sets – stage-divers and punches suspended, framed mid-collision in celluloid. Then, just as every head in the theater gets to bobbing along with SS Decontrol’s sonic assault, blood boiling with the rollicking images, the operation screeches to a halt. Awkward silence but for Keith Morris, of Black Flag and Circle Jerks (non)fame, describing the socio-Reaganomic status that sparked the whole sha-bang while sitting poolside in a lawn-chair on his substandard suburban patio. Unable to wipe the maniacally enthused grin off my face, I thought to myself, "This is gonna be good."

I couldn’t have been more right. Rachman’s adaptation is as close to a perfect snapshot as possible. It’s always been easy for teen- and middle-aged yahoos to rip the effort to shreds on the blogosphere; “There should’ve been more music,” “Where’s Hüsker Dü?” “What about Texas and the Midwest?” What about it? For Hardcore’s sake, there’s only so much of the movement a man can capture using faded twenty-plus-year-old footage while sidestepping intra-band legal battles (that’s why neither the Dead Kennedys nor the Misfits made it into the line-up)! I will concede, however, that Rachman’s coverage was biased toward Black Flag and the Bad Brains as the movement’s bicoastal powerhouses, and that San Francisco appeared as a mere blip on the film’s radar. Then again, I said it was as close to perfect as possible, for Rachman had no predecessors and only Blush’s anthology to guide the effort.

For all those fine lines in this otherwise smooth depiction, there are many aspects of the film that even the most scrutinizing hardcore-punk can appreciate; how members of bands like MDC (Millions of Dead Cops) are interviewed in their backyards, in front of swing-sets and various other clues that the buzz-saw guitarists now share those spaces with toddlers. And that all the interviews were done in harsh or poor lighting, in the crappy apartments of decidedly un-famous ghosts of the movement or the sterile, OCD-clean homes of shrewd musicians-turned-businessmen, like Henry Rollins, the film’s aesthetics reflecting the scene’s own unforgiving sound. Also, all the live show and stage footage is in black and white, reeking of nostalgia, like an art history lesson in kicking ass and taking names. And you have to appreciate the hilarity that is old dudes with names like “Jimmy Gestapo” (Murphy’s Law) and “Vinnie Stigma” (Agnostic Front) discussing sex, drugs, and hardcore shows in their drug-addled, slithery voices (needless to say it’s rated R for pervasive language and sex and drug references), tattoos fading like graffiti in acid rain. Other highlights include interviews with media-reclusive D.C. figures Ian MacKaye (Teen Idles, Minor Threat) and Paul “H.R.” Hudson (the Bad Brains), and observing the general mayhem and violence that accompanies the cathartic concerts.

Judging by the reaction in the theater, American Hardcore is one hundred minutes of pure adulatory bliss. It’s one of those films that you go to see knowing full well that you’ll be in good company. I mean, it takes a special person to appreciate the thrill of thrash punk. A few kids in the front cheered when John Joseph (Cro-Mags) was afforded a five-minute soundbite. You don’t get that kind of reaction from Marie Antoinette, I assure you. Even my forty-eight-year-old, Elvis Costello-loving father couldn’t stop talking about how enthralling the experience was. However, this film is not for the faint at heart, or the faint of hearing. After all, the movement’s intensity led to its implosion, a general effect of burning the candle at both ends further examined at the film’s climax.

This film is for those of us who are or ever have been forced to brave seedy district neighborhoods in search of that rare album we know not to bother searching for on iTunes or Napster. This is for everyone whose ears have ever rung for days after standing too close to an amp, or reluctantly returned home smelling of Miller, Marlboros, and the sweat of one hundred or so of your closest friends. Or, at the very least, for those who wish they had.

(Promotional graphic courtesy of Rhino Records. To see the trailer of American Hardcore, courtesy of Sony Pictures, please see below.

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