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American Hardcore ***
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Rossiter Drake*

L.A.'s Circle Jerks rose to modest fame during
the heyday of American hardcore.

(Courtesy of SFStation.com) 

Starring: Henry Rollins, Ian MacKaye, Mark Arm, Flea, Moby, Mike Patton, Phil Anselmo, Duff McKagan. Rated R.

After the first bruising wave of British punk swept through America, introducing a generation of disgruntled teenagers to the Sex Pistols and the Clash, came the domestic response: the raw, anarchic fury of hardcore, less inspired by political sensibilities than sheer anger.

Director Paul Rachman’s American Hardcore explains that culture, as much as any phenomenon defined by chaos can be rationally explained. With its grainy, not-quite-ready-for-prime-time footage culled from countless shows between 1980 and ’86, and the recollections of punk stalwarts including Black Flag’s Henry Rollins and Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye, it is a firsthand account of a manic movement that burned a bit too brightly to last any longer than it did.

If anything, the American response to punk, as crafted first in the suburbs of Southern California and later in the grungiest corners of the New York club scene, was defiantly crude, a cry of misfit rage raised predominantly by white males. Rachman and screenwriter Steven Blush, whose book of the same name inspired this cinematic treatment, do their best to interview all of them. And indeed, their cast of mostly interchangeable skinheads and survivors of bands that never quite made it shed light on a movement that was dark and inaccessible to the mainstream. Those who went on to enjoy success in the music industry after hardcore’s demise are few and far between.

Perhaps that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Although most hardcore acts cherished their DIY ethos and indie credibility, they didn’t put so much emphasis on their musical chops; the bands that did, and the ones that dared to expand their repertoire beyond the fast and mercilessly loud, were often derided as sell-outs. In the minds of many purists, the music was about energy and testosterone – no more, no less. Rachman’s documentary focuses on that overwhelmingly male aggression, and pays little mind to the political context of punk in the conservative Reagan era.

In that sense, American Hardcore is not likely to matter much to those who didn’t embrace punk the first time around. It presents the music as borne more out of emotion than ideology, and if you preferred the softer, safer melodies of Huey Lewis and the News back then, you’re probably not going to gain a newfound appreciation for the primal rage that fueled bands like Hüsker Dü and Bad Brains. For fans of the genre, though, Rachman’s film provides invaluable insight into a past that wasn’t always pretty, but always delivered a refreshing shock to the system.

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