Film

American Hardcore shows what kids did before floor punching

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Stage diving into the terse, fist-pumping, assaultive sonic realm of the
1980s underground music scene that spread like a nasty rash from points in
Southern California, Vancouver, Washington, DC, and New York to eventually
conquer disgruntled, mostly white kids all over North America, American
Hardcore is a fun documentary that’s very much about a certain time,
place and temperament —if it has something universal to say about music
or youth, it does so most effectively by being specific.

Directed by Paul Rachman and adapted by Steven Blush from his 2001 book of
the same title, American Hardcore gets surprising mileage out of a pretty
conventional format: talking heads and performance footage make up nearly
every sequence in the film, with interviews kept almost entirely amongst the
musicians, managers and scenesters whose faces and noise were all over that
1980 – 86 period of bluntly politicized teenage angst.

It would have been interesting to see the film explore a bit more of the
backgrounds and lifestyles of kids at the time—the broken homes and
more immediate, local effects of Regan Era policy. But what even within a
restrictive palate—and, hey, hardcore is about nothing if not about
getting maximum power from a restrictive palate—Rachman and Blush leave
us engaged, reasonably informed and kind of breathless.

Its not a bad thing that American Hardcore is full of quotes like “It
was like a fucking comet hitting the fucking planet” or “The less
it was a song, the more we loved it.” Though more articulate commentary
from the likes of hardcore icons like Black Flag’s Henry Rollins and
Greg Ginn or Bad Brains’ Paul “HR” Hudson helps us dig
deeper into how this vehemently DIY scene developed its sweaty muscles, the
frequently purely aggressive, expletive-laden slogans that pepper the film
still get at the heart of the matter: youth culture was sliding back into a
1950s fantasy of consumerism and conformity, and it was driving kids nuts
enough to scream into shitty microphones.

Between the blatant fetishization of handmade 7” record sleeves,
photocopied ’zines, shirtless singers lunging in incoherent rage and
rusty guitar strings beaten into submission, American Hardcore manages to
touch on how fragile and fleeting the psychic assembly of angry expression
really was. Drugs and alcohol may have been traded in for a potentially
healthy diet of unrestrained adrenalin pumping, but the aggression within the
music quickly spilled out into puerile hooliganism, sub-moronic mob mentality
and even attracted fascist sympathizers—which is exactly why almost
none of the best hardcore bands kept at it for very long. They may not have
been prancing pop peacocks, but these guys (and I do mean guys—the
ladies welcome into hardcore were few and far between) weren’t actually
full-on nihilists either.

But ultimately, American Hardcore’s real value lies essentially in its
function as a slice of history, not cultural analysis. It allows us to peer
into a milieu that deserves recognition. Bite-sized recollections from your
generously inclusive assortment of Circle Jerks, Shitheads, Minor Threats and
Suicidal Tendencies piece together the trajectory both in terms of geography,
style and political agendas. The flurry of vintage tunes wreaking havoc in
basements, parking lots and suburban churches brings it back to life all the
more vividly for being shot on badly aged VHS tapes with lousy sound quality.
Most of the performances work just fine in 20-second clips, but here’s
hoping that the DVD will at least let us see Bad Brains’ “The Big
Take-over” in its completion. V

Fri, Jan 5, Sun, Jan 7 & Tue, Jan 9 (9:15 pm); Sat, Jan 6, Mon,
Jan 8 & Wed, Jan 10 (7 pm)

American Hardcore
Directed by Paul Rachman
Written by Steven Blush
Featuring Henry Rollins, Paul “HR” Hudson, Dicky Barrett, Ian
MacKaye
Metro Cinema, $8

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