Along with the emerging sound of hip-hop, it was the musical counterpoint to Ronald Reagan’s 1950s-retrofitted America, and the not-so-sweet soundtrack of my own bored, suburban youth. Bands like Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Minor Threat and Bad Brains gave a cutting edge to the ennui, and set the stage for the next act in America’s culture wars.
Based on Steven Blush’s book of the same name, director Paul Rachman fondly revisits this particularly American strain of punk circa 19801986, from its first stirrings in Southern California and Washington, D.C. beachheads, to the network of regional tribes that eventually emerged across the continent. Populated by craggy-faced veterans of the era, Rachman’s documentary functions as a kind of musical atlas-cum-jukebox, surveying the various scenes–their sound, inspiration, politics, rivalries–and the spasmodic fits of violence they occasionally spawned.
Beyond sampling each city’s scene, however, Rachman expends surprisingly little effort trying to situate the movement as anything more than reaction to the Reagan years and corporatized pop culture. And his eagerness to cram in as many talking heads as he can robs the film of cohesion; it’s a twenty-year reunion party of hardcore’s graduate class that never wants to end.
The film has its moments. There is some occasionally thrilling live footage, confrontational performances rendered in a low-fi digital blur of smudged colours (we’re talking the early days of VHS and camcorders here). Few of the participants are afraid to laugh at themselves– and there is often good reason to–and the likes of Ian MacKaye, Henry Rollins and
H.R. from Bad Brains can always be relied upon to give good quote.
But, as if to frustrate viewers, Rachman furnishes clues as to where this film could have gone: Black Flag’s relentless touring, the creation of seminal label SST and how hardcore punk created the template for indie culture networks in the nineties; the trend toward radical (leftist or rightist) politics and testosteronefuelled violence; and, as I watched Mike Watt, exof the Minutemen, drive his van around San Pedro I wondered what becomes of a punk rock role model? How have he and others reconciled their cultural values with life in the era of News Corp-owned Myspace? Instead of bearing in on any of these themes, Rachman lashes us with sound bites, then packs up his curiosity and moves on to the next scene.
American Hardcore’s decidedly exhaustive survey grows tedious by its last third. More bands and scenes of yore are introduced–next stop, North Carolina!–and covered with the same blithe interest. But it’s the unyielding formula of talking head/concert footage/talking head, a rather dull treatment typical of even the better films on punk (Don Letts’ Punk: Attitude, Afro-Punk), that’s most dispiriting. For a musical movement that was so professedly non-conformist, punk docs are surprisingly conventional. Punk, it seems, is yet to find its cinematic archivist-poet, its Arthur Lipsett or Ron Mann.
As a result of the film’s inability to follow any single thread of inquiry, offer new insights or information, or even package up the same-old in an inspired way, American Hardcore is little more than a nostalgia trip for those already in the know, a time capsule from an already insular cultural moment. (Christopher Frey)
Dir Paul Rachman