I know I sound like my dad, but when I was a kid, music and buzz about music couldn't move at the speed of light, via music blogs, MP3s and filesharing; it moved from town to town in photocopied 'zines, 45's, and gear-crammed Ford Econoline vans that smelled like dude. American Hardcore, adocumentary by Paul Rachman based on the book by Steven Blush, revisits that time, and celebrates it through a rag-tag mix of old, blurry footage, new, slightly blurry interviews and loud, fast music. Specifically, American Hardcore is subtitled "The History of American Punk Rock 1980-1986," and offers an interesting counter-timeline for the early '80s. History, they say, is written by the winners; American Hardcore offers a few chapters from people who were, in fact, proud to be 'losers,' then and now, if that was defined by being set against the mainstream of consumerism and conformity.
American Hardcore isn't the most polished documentary you've ever seen -- there are plenty of interviews where the microphone cord sticks out on the subject's shirts like an undone zipper, or a spoken phrase is mixed with the huff and bluster of the wind. But then again, punk rock was never about sonic perfection: It was (and is) about emotional intensity, and American Hardcore has that in van loads, and delivers with onetwothreefour! power. All the usual suspects are interviewed here -- Henry Rollins of Black Flag, Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat, Greg Hetson of The Circle Jerks -- but there are also interviews with more marginal figures (or, more precisely, figures on the margins of the margins) like Vic Bondi of Articles of Faith, who sums up Hardcore's response to the Reagan era: "Everyone was saying it was 'Morning in America'; someone had to say 'It's fucking midnight!" In fact, the interviews are strong enough that Rachman wisely forgoes a narrator (And who would you get to narrate this film, anyhow? It's not really a gig for Morgan Freeman) and relies instead on the people who were there, the old VHS tapes plundered from some closet and a few wisely-chosen video graphics.
Michael Azzerad's excellent book about American underground music, Our Band Could Be Your Life, covered some of the same ground as American Hardcore, and I mention Azzerad's book only to observe how the approach of Our Band Could Be Your Life -- going band-by-band, from first practice to, in some cases, last gig -- isn't used in American Hardcore. Instead, Rachman shows us how early punk rock spread -- like a political movement, or a virus -- from city to city. The old joke about The Velvet Underground is that only 200 people brought their first record, but every one of those people went out and formed a band; you get a similar sense here, as a fan is plucked from the crowd at a show to sing with his newly-minted idols -- and the next day, offered a position as the lead singer. It sounds like something out of an MGM musical; it's also how Black Flag wound up being fronted by Henry Rollins.
The graphics showing punk's city-to-city spread are credited to John Vondracek, who contributes economical-but-evocative graphic design. Vondracek not only turns long-brittle flyers into quick-cut visuals (like the demonstration of how an appropriated, re-mixed Ronald Reagan himself became one of hardcore punk's more enduring images through dozens of flyers) but also makes new animations that add to the film without distracting from it -- like a computer-animated demonstration of how Ian MacKaye's first band printed, cut, glued and hand-assembled the sleeves for 10,000 45's because they literally didn't know where you could go to get such a thing done for you. Punk's always had a DIY aesthetic -- do it yourself -- and American Hardcore demonstrates just how much work those three letters sum up.
American Hardcore is one of those films that seems to limit it's demographic: The kids (as I like to call them) aren't likely to care about these graying, reminiscing figures, while older punk aficionados are likely to turn their noses up and wonder why, say, The Dead Kennedys or Husker Du aren't featured more. But you could ransack the backpack of any teen and find some piece of music -- from Green Day to The Beastie Boys to The Red Hot Chili Peppers -- that wouldn't exist but for hardcore punk rock. And it's also hard to imagine the punk fan so jaded that he or she couldn't learn something from American Hardcore -- about, say, one of the featured bands who played three or four gigs but splintered into five new bands and inspired dozens of others.
And American Hardcore isn't too reverential, either; It doesn't seem to think that every band was earth-shakingly important, it doesn't suggest that hardcore punk was always a unified bloc of like-minded individuals, and it doesn't feel that every utterance out of the young, spit-wet mouths of the people it studies was the wisdom of the ancients. One of the film's pleasures is watching various punk figures laughing (or wincing) at their own youthful excess, as in one anecdote from a band member explaining the night where a young man tries to get into their show: He can't afford a ticket, he says, but he is willing to give the door guy one of the two pipe bombs he's made and brought along. ...
To me, the measure of success for any rock documentary is how fiercely it makes you want to get to the nearest record store after the end credits roll. American Hardcore has that energy, and that passion. Rachman and Blush worked together not to bury hardcore punk rock but to praise it, and they've made a truly satisfying snapshot of a time whose shouts and power chords still sound out loud and clear today.
(For more on American Hardcore, check out Cinematical's interview with Rachman and Blush from the 2006 Toronto Film Festival.)