February 22, 2007
While there have been plenty of books and documentaries chronicling the New York and British punk rock scenes of the 1970s, there has been very little of substance covering the subsequent emergence of the punk (what was labeled as “hardcore”) scene that exploded in the United States in the 1980s and spawned the likes of Bad Brains, Black Flag, The Dead Kennedys and Minor Threat amongst many others. The scenes that flourished with these bands were arguably just as important and carried the punk rock flag through a very materialistic decade dominated by New Wave and hair metal music. Using Steven Blush’s book of the same name as its foundation, American Hardcore (2006) attempts to act as a primer for this time period and illustrate how it helped pave the way for alternative music and pop/punk music like Blink 182 in the 1990s.
The documentary quickly establishes how 1980s hardcore music was a response to the neo-conservatism of the Ronald Reagan era and the bloated rock operas of Meat Loaf, Fleetwood Mac, and others. Hardcore was all about fast, loud and angry music that railed against the establishment. It was also about a do-it-yourself aesthetic: putting out ‘zines, organizing your own gigs and recording your music on the cheap.
If there is one problem with this documentary it is that it moves too fast through the various scenes in the country, only giving a brief impression of how they originated and who were the notable bands, but it does show how one would in turn influence another until punk rock spread across the country. The social climate and the environment that these people grew up in influenced their music. Where this doc does excel is in showcasing some fantastic, rare concert footage of Bad Brains, Black Flag, Minor Threat and many other bands. Thrown into the mix are also a lot of still photographs taken from back in the day that helps give an impression of what these bands must’ve been like. The video and audio quality of most of the concert footage isn’t always the greatest but it’s amazing that it even exists in the first place.
If American Hardcore does have a focus (and it’s really hard to tell if this is the case), it’s on how seminal bands like Bad Brains, Black Flag and Minor Threat blazed trails all over the U.S. Significant amount of time is spent on these three bands with interview clips from many of its members, including Henry Rollins, Greg Ginn, Ian MacKaye and H.R. (a.k.a. Paul Hudson). This doc also addresses subgenres like the straight-edge crowd, inspired by Minor Threat that espoused life without drugs and alcohol and how a mutated strain in Boston took on a more militant stance.
While this doc does offer a nice sampling of bands from all over the country, there are some glaring omissions. Where are the Dead Kennedys, Fear or Bad Religion? How come Jello Biafra or Lee Ving weren’t interviewed? Were they unavailable or did they decline to be interviewed? The doc or its extras fail to elaborate on these discrepancies but their briefest of mentions in this film does a huge disservice to their influence on punk rock in the ‘80s. With the exception of Kira Roessler who played bass in Black Flag, there is little mention of important women like Exene Cervenka of X in punk rock music. To be fair, it was male-dominated and the doc does try to point out that women were responsible for documenting a lot of bands in film, photos or ‘zines. However, these two glaring flaws only point out the doc’s lack of focus as the filmmakers try to cover too much and end up omitting certain key bands. Obviously, you can’t cover everyone but this doc could really use expanding into a longer running time like the three-hour version of A Decade Under the Influence (2003), about American cinema in the 1970s, which was released on DVD. The bottom line is that this doc is good for newcomers to the music but fans of the genre will be left wanting more.
There is an audio commentary by director Paul Rachman and writer Steven Blush. They spend a lot of time pointing out where they got a lot of the archival footage from, including a shout-out to the Philadelphia hardcore scene which is a nice touch. They also talk about the DIY approach they adopted which included very little pre-set questions, instead opting for a more spontaneous, intuitive technique which mirrored the music. They reminisce about a lot of the bands on screen and offer a few anecdotes of making the doc. To their credit, they keep each other talking and do a decent job of keeping our interest.
There is a huge collection of deleted scenes, including a funny bit with Zander Schloss of The Circle Jerks talking about how he was cast in Repo Man (1984). Most of these scenes are very brief soundbites consisting of anecdotes from back in the day.
“Musical Performances” allows you to see entire songs from the likes of Bad Brains, Void, YDI and others that were only excerpted in the doc.
“Premiere Parties with D.O.A. and Circle Jerks” features performances by these two legendary punk rock bands at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival party. As great as these two bands are, it’s kind of sad to see old guys still trying to cut it.
“In the Pit – The Photos of Ed Colver.” He was one of the most significant documentarians of American punk in the ‘80s and did it with great skill. He talks over a montage of his photos about where they were taken and what he thinks of them now in this fascinating extra.