American Hardcore follows the history of punk rock/hardcore music from 1980-1986, and as most of the interviewees in this documentary will tell you, that was the genre’s most volatile and pure era. Some of the underground luminaries interviewed even suggest that punk rock died in ’86–an issue that can be debated from now until 2086.
American Hardcore (2006)
Directed by Paul Rachman
1 hr. 40 min.
Taking the lead from Steven’s Blush’s book of the same name, American Hardcore, directed by Paul Rachman, doesn’t deviate from the standard music documentary formula we’ve seen before–talking head interview, still photos (w/ Ken Burns effect), live performance clip, repeat. That doesn’t mean, however, a very interesting story is not being told.
As expected, American Hardcore does sit down with the big names of the era–Henry Rollins, Ian MacKaye and Mike Watt–but it’s also refreshing to hear perspectives from punk rockers and scenesters who may not be recognized by every patch-wearing fan of hardcore music. Because these guys and gals haven’t been given as much face time over the years, their sound bites come off a little more raw and unpolished, than say those of Rollins and MacKaye. Sometimes this works really well and some times you can’t wait until the camera goes back to a familiar face.
The production value of American Hardcore is, hmm, punk rock to say the least–lav mics clipped to the front of t-shirts, lens flares, an interview with Keith Morris where a tree branch casts a horrible shadow over his face, and some other audio and lighting issues. This wouldn’t fly on MTV or VH1, but because the documentary is telling the stories of don’t-give-a-fuck teenagers who were recording full-length albums on 4-track recorders in their bedrooms, it’s totally acceptable.
American Hardcore succeeds with its brutal honesty. Some may romanticize the early 80’s punk rock era as one where crusty outsiders gloriously united to create a happy punk rock utopia, but after an hour into the film, you soon realize that–like in many other music scenes–drugs, machismo, robbing, stealing, and our-scene-is-better-than-your-scene feuds weren’t exempt from punk rock music.
Fortunately the film balances out the bad of punk rock with the good. In one of the more interesting stories, MacKaye explains how he took apart an album cover, to find out how manufacturers glued them together. MacKaye would then trace over the album cover and use it as a template for thousands and thousands of his band’s records, which were all assembled by hand, using only elbow grease and Elmer’s glue.
The many, many performance clips are also exciting to watch, and make you want to damn your parents for not being born earlier in life. Who wouldn’t want the chance to see Minor Threat, Bad Brains, D.O.A., Zero Boys or Black Flag in their prime?
As a fan of punk rock and hardcore music I thoroughly enjoyed American Hardcore, but for someone not familiar with this time and place in music, I don’t know if they would be able to enjoy it as much. Rachman squeezed in a ton of bands and provided a nice overview of the era, but a few questions–at least for me–remained unanswered. I wanted a more in-depth look on why Ronald Reagan pissed everyone off so much in the 80’s (since he became the de facto bad guy on so many punk rock flyers), why there were so many three-lettered bands from that era (D.O.A., D.R.I., DYS, MDC, S.O.A., YDI), and why so many of the punks back then are still bitter today? For an era that has made many feel so liberated, it bums me out that some of its forefathers are still talking like it’s 1986.