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.