See also John Dover’s review of this DVD
“Everybody was saying, ‘It’s morning in America!’ Someone had to say, ‘It’s f*cking midnight!’” Vic Bondie’s explosive quote near the beginning of this documentary not only kick-starts the film, but summarizes the experience of watching American Hardcore, as well. American Hardcore is a documentary of the hardcore punk rock movement in the US from 1980-1986, hardcore’s heyday. The movement may have been short-lived, but just like the music, it was loud and powerful. A lot like this film.
Directed by Paul Rachman, and based on the 2001 book American Hardcore: A Tribal History (Feral House) by Steven Blush, it’s a veritable ‘who’s who’ of the original hardcore scene, and the interview footage alone is worth watching the film for. The kids may be grown up now, but you can still taste the blood, sweat, and tears in their hilarious anecdotes and hilariously memorable quotes. True Hardcore fans will recognize many of the usual suspects: Henry Rollins (SOA, Black Flag), Ian McKaye (Teen Idles, Minor Threat, Fugazi), Keith Morris (Black Flag, Circle Jerks), “HR” Hudson (Bad Brains), and Dave Dictor just to name a few.
A map of America sets the stage and the story is told chronologically and geographically. We see where the movement began, in Southern California’s Orange County, then quickly spread to Washington, D.C., Boston, San Francisco, and then began criss-crossing the country, with a pit- stop in Vancouver, and with New York as the late-comers, the last major city to join in. We see how the cities were like gangs that stole from and influenced each other. Henry Rollins describes traveling to a show in San Francisco where he witnessed the audience throwing elbows at each other. He then takes this back to his hometown of D.C. where everyone in the audience had been, foolishly, standing still.
Watching this film feels like listening to hardcore. And the footage. Oh, the footage. We’re talking never before seen live, grainy recordings of concerts, crashed parties, and secret shows. And in addition to interviews with the icons, the filmmakers also interview the promoters, the fans, the ‘zine makers, the radio show hosts; the groupies, the wanna-bees, and even the cops who hassled them all.
American Hardcore isn’t just about music and attitude, though. Taking a cue from the book, the film places hardcore against the political and social climate of the time. It shows how and why this movement was born and exploded like it did, which cements hardcore punk’s legitimate place in the nation’s larger cultural history.
Hardcore was a different kind of monster than The Ramones and Sex Pistols of the ‘70s. It was a product of ‘80s America: Reagan was president; preppy was in; and Yes and Foreigner were playing on the radio. Things were bleak, indeed. Hardcore responded with a DIY ethic which proved that if you don’t agree or identify with the larger system, you can form your own.
The film doggedly focuses on 1980-1986 and doesn’t stray very far into what came before or after. Some viewers may find this frustrating, but it is actually one of the films major strengths. There is so much territory to cover, and other films have already been there and done that, so American Hardcore compresses and condenses. It doesn’t dwell on factual details: you either know who Keith Morris is or you don’t, either way the film keeps rolling.
And there are some surprisingly interesting revelations and analysis. Kira Roessler of Black Flag reflects on the confusion and loneliness she felt as one of few women in a subculture full of testosterone. Henry Rollins discusses the violence and his disillusionment with how far many in the movement took it. Dave Dictor talks of being an out, gay man in the scene. Ian McKaye talks of his sadness over the misinterpretation of his song “Guilty of Being White” and his disgust with how it has been picked up as an anthem for the white-power branch of punk rock.
The DVD extras include deleted and extended scenes from already included interviews, and a photo gallery with photographer commentary. These are all appropriately funny and entertaining. However the big draw on the extras is the bonus performances from featured bands, notably Black Flag and Bad Brains. This is just good stuff.
The halcyon days of American hardcore punk rock may be over, but the aftershocks are still shaking the walls.