Paul Rachman's American Hardcore, based on the book of the same name written by Steven Blush, takes on the daunting task of trying to document the rise of hardcore punk in the United States from roughly 1981 through 1986 when it started to fade out (though thankfully it's never completely gone away). Through plenty of archival video clips and still photographs as well as newly shot interview footage with plenty of people involved in the scene and influenced by the scene the film presents a well-rounded though far from comprehensive look at the genre and despite a few omissions and statements, it's an interesting and entertaining look at how this scene came together.
The thesis of the film is essentially that the American hardcore punk movement rose up as a sort of musical rebellion and rejection of Reagan-era conservative politics and the toning down of what once was punk rock. By the early eighties punk was starting to morph into New Wave (at least as far as the mainstream was concerned) and much of the anger, rebellion and social thinking was starting to bleed out of it. A few young adults and teenagers who still clung to the old punk rock ideals started playing their music faster and harder, making it straight and to the point. As one interviewee says in the documentary, it was the musical equivalent of hardcore pornography as it left nothing to the imagination and was as blunt and in your face as it could get.
The film starts by tracing various regional upstarts, explaining how the scene grew out of Los Angeles, Washington D.C. and New York at various times and as bands started to tour and word of mouth lead to larger followings for bigger acts like Black Flag and M.D.C., the scene spread to other states like Texas, Massachusetts, Washington, Oregon and Nevada. Violence in the form of the occasional riot and the tendency to attack other concert goers and even performers on the stage became part and parcel with the scene though interestingly enough there was also a fairly large straight edge contingent stemming from Minor Threat vocalist Ian MacKaye's anti drug and alcohol diatribes (which were in sharp contrast to the British and later American punk movement of the late seventies which was, at times, pro-drug).
That's more or less all that there is to the film. The value of American Hardcore lies not in its depth or scope, as it omits a lot of bands (the Dead Kennedys are only mentioned in passing, Poison Idea gets about ten seconds worth of screen time and although D. R. I. is mentioned on the back of the case, they get about as much screen time – to make matters worse, no credit is given to the UK's Crass who pre-date most of the American hardcore by a few years) and people involved in the scene. Instead, it lies in the bits and pieces that it presents to us by way of interview clips and stories. Henry Rollins gets a fair bit of screen time and he explains how he came to join Black Flag after singing a song with them at a show one night, and we're treated to a fantastic clip of Henry giving back tenfold to a fan who seemed to think it was funny to smack him while he was singing. Ian MacKaye is interviewed here and he talks about how Minor Thread's Guilty Of Being white was written as an anti-racist song despite the fact that it was co-opted by a European white power organization and how the early Minor Threat 7" records were all packaged by hand. H. R. and the other guys from Bad Brains all appear here and talk about how they tried to make a difference with their music (pretty much every person interviewed here has nothing but really nice things to say about Bad Brains) and how they tried to steer the scene in a more positive direction while Dave Dictor from M.D.C. talks about how his life has changed since the early eighties while Vinnie Stigma of Agnostic Front talks about how he'd always let various bands crash at his apartment while they were in NYC and had nowhere else to go.
Mike Watt of The Minutemen takes us on a tour of some of his old stomping grounds while Mark Arm of Mudhoney and Mr. Epp talks about what was happening in Seattle at the time. Joey 'Shithead' Keithley talks about how hardcore took off in Vancouver and how they found an audience in the United States through constant touring (there's some great footage of the band performing Fucked Up Ronnie) while Dave Brockie, better known as Oderus Urungus from Gwar, talks about how the first time he went to a hardcore show he thought that people in the audience were trying to kill one another. Keith Morris, Greg Hetson and Greg Ginn from The Circle Jerks talk about what was happening around Hermosa Beach, though the band's connection to Bad Religion and the influence that Bad Religion had is more or less ignored. Phil Anselmo and Hank III from Superjoint Ritual appear on camera for about thirty seconds so that Phil can mumble semi-coherently about how great Black Flag was and III can look really baked, while Duff McKagen of Guns N Roses hands out on his couch and offers very little. Curtis Casella of Taang Records shares a few stories about how he got his label going and the various bands he interacted with, while Kevin Seconds talks about the hardcore scene in Nevada.
Again, the documentary does cover a fair amount of ground and many of the major players are interviewed here in a fair bit of detail, but the fact that a few others are just glossed over does hurt the significance of the picture somewhat. With a fair bit of ground left uncovered it's be great it the filmmakers could dig up enough new material to make a sequel. None of the Target video footage of the day is used here and there are still plenty of people not interviewed here who would probably be more than happy to get in front of the camera and talk about their time in the hardcore movement. As it stands, this is an interesting and well meant incomplete look at a genuinely fascinating piece of music history that continues to influence musicians to this day.
American Hardcore is presented in a decent 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. One thing to consider is that a large portion of the material used for this release has been taken from old VHS tape sources that were shot on camcorders at shows and what not, and that this material would have originally been shown fullframe – with that in mind, some of the archival clips look matted. Aside from that, there's little to complain about but you do need to keep in mind that much of the archival material is in pretty rough shape and was shot under less than ideal circumstances. The newly shot interview footage looks nice and clean with plenty of fine detail. For a movie culled together from various video sources, there's nothing to complain about here and things are authored well in that there aren't any issues with mpeg compression artifacts or heavy edge enhancement.
5.0 Surround Sound with optional subtitles available in English, French and Spanish. The same caveat that applies to the video applies to the audio as well in that it fluctuates in quality from clip to clip. Again, all of the new footage sounds just fine, though this material is more or less just a bunch of interview clips and as such it doesn't need fancy remixing or channel separation. Even the older clips are of fairly decent quality, however. Not everything sounds crystal clear but by and large the levels are at least properly balanced and the dialogue is always clear enough.
First up, as far as the supplements go on this release, is a feature length commentary track with Paul Rachman and Steven Blush. The two men share a good sense of humor and have a decent relationship together as they explain how most of the interviews seen in the film were done on their couches. As the commentary goes on, they talk about their experiences with different bands featured in the film, and they explain where some of the footage came from. They explain the differences in some of the various centralized scenes that burst out of various different cities, and they comment on the different bands and the impact that they had, noting that within five seconds of The Bad Brains taking the stage things would start to happen. You won't gain a lot of historical insight into the bands from this track but you will get a good idea of what went into putting the picture together and for that reason it's worth sampling.
From there we find a selection of deleted scenes shot for the feature but excised from the final product. Here you'll find bits with the Cro-Mags, The Adolescents, The Circle Jerks, Bad Brains, Rollins and more – there's over forty-minutes of material here that is all in the same vein as that used in the feature. Up next is a selection of six live performances from a few of the bands highlighted in the documentary – complete songs from MDC (Corporate Death Burger), Bad Brains (Big Takeover), SS Decontrol (Boiling Point), Void (My Rules), YDI (Enemy For Life) and Jerry's Kids (I Don't Belong).
Also here is a segment called Premiere Parties With D.O.A. And Circle Jerks which is some footage of the performance that the bands gave at the 2006 Sundance Films Festival to introduce the film. This runs just over seven minutes in length and while it's of better quality than the archival footage it is, appropriately enough, shot in the same 'handheld' manner.
Rounding out the extra features is an excellent still gallery of photos documenting the era, as well as animated menus, chapter stops, a trailer for the feature and trailers for other Sony DVD titles currently available or coming soon.
While it's true that American Hardcore is by no means a comprehensive look at the scene and the era and that it leaves out a few key bands and people, it does give viewers a decent, well-rounded look at what the hardcore punk movement was all about and how it started. This, along with plenty of great clips and rare footage of the bands in action, makes the documentary worth a look. The audio and video quality is fine and the extras are decent as well and even if the documentary could have been better, this release still comes recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.