It was a bit odd to see a movie about the thoroughly anti-establishment movement of early American punk rock, released by one of the largest media conglomerates in the world. I also get the feeling that a lot of the guys featured in this documentary would get their asses kicked by their younger selves for daring to appear in a film like this. Frankly though, I’m glad they did because American Hardcore is a great retrospective scrapbook of a volatile era in music and a reminder that punk was more than Johnny Rotten.
Based on the book of the same name written by Steven Blush, director Paul Rachman combines new interviews with archival footage and vintage artwork and music from the period. Among the participants are members of Black Flag, D.O.A., Bad Brains, Middle Class, S.S. Decontrol, Circle Jerks and Bad Religion. Rachman lays out a map of how the punk rock scene in America spread from the West Coast and sunny Southern California to reach across the country thanks to a dedicated system of like-minded musicians who fed, learned and influenced each other. Also highlighted is the political undercurrent of the time and the violent push back of disenfranchised youth against 80s neo-conservatism and the Reagan era.
Authenticators, interested parties and those that lived “the scene” will probably observe this film as “whitewash” and/or “short sighted”. I can appreciate that, especially in the sense of ownership that the participants have for their art form. But as much as punk was an influence, it is also a mystery. Most can identify the sound of punk but can’t name a punk band outside of more recent outfits like Blink 182 or Sum 41, and many hardcores would argue that they really aren’t punk as they know it anyway. Maybe for this reason, American Hardcore is most worthy of cause to be seen, a reminder of what true punk is and why it matters to this day.
Some have said that Rachman is not as exhaustive or as analytical as they would have liked, but I don’t think this was that movie. It’s a time capsule of sorts, a feeling that’s evoked because of the filmmakers’ emphasis on the archival records; the real posters, the real music, the real concert footage. Also, the only ones who get to talk in this doc are the people who lived the scene with no extemporaneous, outside commentary talking about why punk in ’81 mattered. The music is great and the memories are great even if you were too young to consider anything beyond Raffi on your musical pallet. There are also subtle, pointed parallels to modern times and a feeling that the modern music scene is struggling in a battle between the fringe and the mainstream.
The real hardcores may say that this film’s for posers, but I think it’s worthy of attention by anyone interested in the punk scene whether they’re old travelers or newbies. It’s an excellent mix tape of music and memories, making it well worth seeking out.