In chronicling the U.S. "hardcore" punk scene of the early '80s, American Hardcore rhymes strongly with other recent counterculture "scene" docs such as surfing survey Riding Giants and the skateboarding flick Dogtown & the Z-Boys. In other words, there are lots of talking-head interviews with semi-famous old farts reminiscing, spinning variations on "You had to be there, man."
Even if you're a fan of the music in question (and I am), a strain of comedy emerges that earnest filmmakers Paul Rachman (the director) and Steven Blush (the writer, adapting his book American Hardcore: A Tribal History) don't seem to intend. There are more "fucks" here than in Scarface. Vic Bondi, of the Chicago band Articles of Faith, sets a tone early on, remembering the cultural conservatism of the Reagan years and relaying his scene's attitude about it: "Fuck you. Not us. You can take that and shove it up your ass." (Says Black Flag frontman Henry Rollins: "Punk rockers love to hate Reagan worldwide.")
But just as Bondi and others from the scene talk about how Reagan signified the return of white male power, the documentary begins to accidentally reveal how much the hardcore scene -- or at least this film's vision of it -- now looks like a different matrix of white male entitlement and resentment. The worst offender here is Keith Morris, the original singer for the scene-starting L.A. band Black Flag. Morris talks trash about such turn-of-the-decade cultural targets as disco, wine coolers, and arena-rock bands, but the unintentional irony is rich when you realize he's sitting in a lounge chair in front of a big swimming pool. And, eventually, his resentment and belligerence reach a point where you see that this punk rocker's demeanor could have easily made him a militia member instead.
But the fact that American Hardcore is so indulgent of macho scenester bluster may be more of an indictment of the movie than the scene it covers. In focusing so much on the thrashier side of the scene, American Hardcore short-changes the bands that brought the most humanity to the genre -- namely, California's Minutemen and Minnesota's Hüsker Dü.
Both bands recorded for Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn's SST label in the early '80s, so they're absolutely within the scope of the film's coverage, and both bands exploded the genre from the inside with a pair of brilliant double albums for the label: the Minutemen's Double Nickels on the Dime and Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade. But the Minutemen are mentioned only in passing, and, unless I missed something, Hüsker Dü isn't mentioned at all.
Instead, American Hardcore focuses on the Los Angeles scene surrounding Black Flag and the D.C. scene that emulated it in the form of African-American punk band Bad Brains and their baby-faced Caucasian counterparts Minor Threat. Riding Giants and Dogtown had lots of zingy archival footage, and so it is with American Hardcore. If you're a fan of this music, you'll get a thrill from seeing Black Flag playing "Rise Above," Bad Brains blasting through "Pay to Cum," and Minor Threat whipping through "Straight Edge" and "Seeing Red."
Rollins and Minor Threat founder Ian MacKaye are the stars here, but my favorite interviewee might be blond, bespectacled Minor Threat guitarist Brian Baker, who remembers his teenage self: "We were kids, and we were fucking pricks. Smart, hostile, and sober."
From there, American Hardcore devolves into a scene-by-scene survey, with cursory looks at the Midwest, South, and Pacific Northwest.
If I responded to this movie more than its artistry or interest warrant, it's because I have a personal connection. Much of this music (especially Minor Threat and the missing Minutemen and Hüsker Dü) has been really important to me, and I spent many hours as a teen seeing later-generation hardcore bands such as Fugazi, D.I., Trusty, and locals Raid at the Antenna club.
If you have a personal connection to this scene or its music, you'll want to see American Hardcore. If not, you should take a pass, because this is a fan's testament, not first-rate documentary filmmaking.
Opens Friday, February 9th
Studio on the Square