In terms of sheer quantity, Paul Rachman’s music-minded documentary American Hardcore is filled to bursting with interviews, concert footage and archival material from the pioneers of the American punk rock scene. The film barely goes a minute without cutting to a different interview, an alternate song, another shot of teenage crowds going stage-dive wild. It’s as if Rachman and collaborator Steven Blush (who wrote the book the movie is based on) used a shoehorn instead of an editing knife to cut the film together, ensuring as much material as possible got crammed onto the screen. A list of people interviewed in the film alone would fill up the rest of this review. Bottom line: If you are/were a fan of the scene, American Hardcore is an eat-till-you-puke smorgasbord.
Frantic to disgorge its wealth of information, the film hops, skips and pogos across the United States, region by region, checking in with the men (and in rare instances women) who formed the seminal American punk bands, circa 1980-86. From Los Angeles to San Francisco to Seattle to Austin to Washington to New York, members of DOA, Black Flag, Minor Threat, TSOL, Corrosion of Conformity, Circle Jerks, MDC, Flipper, the Cro-Mags and far too many more to mention crawl out of the woodwork to dish about the good old days.
The film functions mostly as a nostalgic overview of that golden era when the entire lifecycle of a legendary band could be summed up--in the words of one interviewee--as, “six flyers, five shows, one album, 18 songs.” American Hardcore touches superficially on a few serious topics: straight edge, women in rock, right-wing skinheads, Reagan-era politics. But these subjects are offered only the briefest amount of screen time. If you’re looking for an in-depth sociopolitical analysis of the punk rock scene, American Hardcore is not gonna do it for you. Really, the film is most interested in setting the mood, reminding us what life was like in those raucous, anything-goes days when three drunk teenagers, a broken bass guitar and a dirty basement were all that were required to stick a finger in the eye of corporate rock.
American Hardcore is not a pretty film by any stretch of the imagination. The modern-day segments are nothing more than shot-on-video talking heads, while the older concert footage is--more often than not--sourced from grainy, degraded VHS tape. Still, this is punk rock we’re talking about, and any attempt at polish would simply be antithetical to the material.
The fact that there is any archival footage at all of early punk performances is a revelation. The glitchy visuals and gritty sound aren’t likely to win any new hardcore recruits. For longtime fans, though, it’s a treat to see no matter how ass-tacular it looks now. At times, viewers will almost certainly wish Rachman had lingered longer on the historical performances. Full songs might have been nice to hear, instead of the truncated snippets we get. But for those who were there (as well as those who wished they were), it’s great to see back-in-the-day footage of a teenage Henry Rollins pummeling the crap out of some audience member.
The modern-day segments do an admirable job of putting it all in context. Who knew so many of these dudes were still alive and kicking? Some are still grumpy (Keith Morris of the Circle Jerks), some are still incredibly well-spoken (H.R. from Bad Brains), but all seem eager to pile on the love-fest bandwagon, heaping praise on fellow performers and talking wistfully about their days of wine and roses (or meth and fistfights, as the case may be).
Despite the overwhelming number of participants--bandmembers, roadies, promoters, fanzine journalists--there are a few glaring omissions. This is the area likely to piss off the most hardcore of hardcore fans. Where, for example, are the Dead Kennedys? Conspicuously absent, sad to say. Hüsker Dü? Missing in action, I’m afraid. Undoubtedly, musical rights and acrimonious band members made certain inclusions impossible. Still, it’s hard to shake the feeling you’ve been invited to the high school reunion and certain crucial classmembers have no-showed.
In the end, it’s hard to fault a film as cram-packed as American Hardcore for what it doesn’t include. Occasionally, the musical interludes are too brief. Every once in a while, you notice someone is missing. Nonetheless, there’s something oddly comforting in the knowledge that punk rock endures and that, somewhere in America, there’s a middle-aged Joey Shithead.