Sunday, October 01, 2006
MOVIE REVIEW: American Hardcore
Arriving at the theater to see American Hardcore about 10 minutes before show time, I found myself at the end of a long ticket line. The line was full of old people, so I knew that they were probably waiting for tickets to The Queen rather than American Hardcore. I went inside and found the automatic ticket machine. I punched in the movie title and show time. Due to some glitch in the machine, it spit out senior citizen priced tickets rather than the regular adult priced tickets. Fortunately, the ticket-taker didn’t notice the error, but if he had, I would have argued that by hardcore standards I was a senior citizen.
And it’s the youth and vitality that began the American hardcore punk scene that’s on display in American Hardcore, a documentary directed by Paul Rachman that chronicles the messy and chaotic beginnings of that scene, covering the years 1980-1986. Through interviews with key players and some very good live footage of such luminaries like Bad Brains, Black Flag, Void, SSD, among others, it does yeoman’s job of portraying this vibrant and underground scene.
American Hardcore’s narrative, if there is one, bookends the music from the beginning of Reagan’s first term to Reagan’s subsequent re-election in 1984 and, related to the actual scene, Black Flag’s break-up in 1986. The film is pushed along by live footage and interviews. There is no voice-over narrator illuminating any of the anecdotes told. For example, the straight edge movement is mentioned, it’s importance ascertained, but the why and where, for instance, that straight edge became so important is never expounded. There’s something laudable about the “either you get it or don’t” attitude, and I don’t mean that in any elitist way. The people who were there speak about what it was like. Their comments are buffered by the live performances. And that’s it. Just as the DIY hardcore scene today remains an “either you get it or you don’t” community of people who get it.
And I wish to emphasize that last part: there is still a solid and ever evolving DIY hardcore scene in America today. The movie ends with many of the people involved in the years of 1980-1986 as declaring that hardcore punk died. (The book, American Hardcore: A Tribal History by Steven Blush, a major source for this documentary, annoyingly declared the same thing.) I understand that, for many of the participants of those early, seminal bands, the scene lost it’s momentum after 1986, but for the film makers of a documentary that purports to chronicle this time to ignore the fact that hardcore continued and thrived after 1986 is, well, quite odd.
Of course, I know that hardcore continued after 1986. I went to my first hardcore show in 1986 - Corrosion of Conformity at the CBGB’s Sunday matinee. Later, in the early 90’s I would be in a hardcore band and also co-found a hardcore record label. (Disclosure: I am longer involved with the label, but it is still kicking and better than ever.) I don’t state this resume as a knee-jerk defense to declare, “Hey, hardcore was around for me too,” but to ask: why document the early era yet discount its impact? The reason why the Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Black Flag, etc. are as influential as they are is precisely because hardcore remained a vital instrument for so many after 1986. I’m not sure what sort of post-script there should have been, but it seems not only dismissive to American hardcore/punk community that rode the crest of that first wave as it is to those original bands to imply that what was accomplished dried up when they left the scene.
Just as the hardcore scene began as a response to the Reagan era and to the lame music landscape of the late 1970’s, the era that followed the years American Hardcore documents, began a as response to the violence and chaos of those early years. There was the Revolution Summer in D.C. and the Youth Crew scene in New York that, arguably, had an impact, for better or for worse, just as great as that first scene.
Ultimately, the flaws I find with American Hardcore, another viewer may see as virtues and vice versa. This fact is a strength of the film and of hardcore. I thought, for example, that at times that it got bogged down in cataloguing the scenes sprouting in different cities. There would be a city name and then quick clips of 4 or 5 bands playing. Another viewer may revel in the fact all these bands get face time, no matter how quick.
The focus lay mostly in L.A. and D.C., rightly so, with a healthy side of Boston. It also maps out the flag-bearers of New York, Texas, and the mid-west states. But there’s a strange disconnect of all this. After the third person or so comments about what was happening in Portland with Poison Idea, all we get, almost out of nowhere, is an amazing, albeit, too short clip of Poison Idea playing. There’s no further discussion as to why this band from Portland became the band that everyone else cites. Just that all too quick clip featuring Poison Idea bursting into song – with an almost svelte Jerry A and Pig Champion to boot. Some more insight into the actual personalities that made these years so amazing may have worked better. And I’m not talking about the Ken Burns treatment – though I would have like to have seen some more still photography featured – but to simply get into a few of the band’s heads a bit more. Obviously, I understand the idea to give as many bands their due and not all can be given justice but here’s an omission: no Dead Kenndys mention whatsoever.
Essentially, there’s too much fertile ground in those six years to include everything. In fact, Black Flag and Bad Brains could probably use their own documentaries. But some of the stuff seemed to come out of left field. For example, we see a member of Flipper saying, incredulously, about how some guy Moby once said in an interview that he sang for Flipper. Cut to Moby, who explains that the singer of Flipper was in jail and he filled in for two shows because he knew the words. There’s no framing for that anecdote, and no further discussion about it. Why is it there? Is it accusing Moby of lying? If it was there to explain about the happenstance and chaotic nature of the scene and how others pitched in to help bands work it failed miserably. It didn’t even work as comic relief: “Moby sang in my band? I don’t remember that.”
But these quarrels with the movie are my own. Anyone remotely knowledgeable with the hardcore scene will have his or her own catalog of flaws. And, while I may be critical of these flaws, it doesn’t mean I thought the film wasn’t well done. I was entertained throughout and happily soaked in all the music and images. I suppose, due to my somewhat anal-retentive personality, that I fully support making order out of chaos of the birth of hardcore. I understand the importance of archiving and documenting the years that preceded my own involvement in the scene.