Exhaustive and at turns exhausting, "American Hardcore" explores 1980s punk subculture with the frenetic energy of mile-a-minute mosh-pit music, sealed with a fist.
Like its English cousin--which dates to 1976 and spawned bands such as the Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks, the Jam and the Clash--punk on these shores reflected youth disillusionment and boredom. Yet the political rise of Ronald Reagan coupled with suburban lethargy fueled hardcore in a way that manifested an altogether more brutal fruit.
"I just wanted to say exactly what was on my mind--in 32 seconds," recalls Minor Threat singer Ian MacKaye, still looking the punk part with his clean-shaven head topped by a black knit ski cap. "We were just kids going wild."
With Minor Threat in Washington, D.C., and Black Flag in Southern California among the trailblazers, hardcore was spawned as a movement dedicated to playing music at breakneck speed and ear-splitting volume, with a penchant for expressing and often sparking violence. That this leads to the genre's demise around 1986 is no great surprise, but Rachman and Blush do a nice job highlighting a lesser-known truth: The bands themselves played a key role in disassembling things.
MacKaye, for his own part, talks about how sick he was of the aggressive shenanigans. Henry Rollins still appears shocked when he recalls how Black Flag founder Greg Ginn broke up the band with a phone call. Bad Brains--the African-American act that proved a seminal influence to the Beastie Boys--found Rastafarian religion and went from rocket-speed songs to slow reggae grooves.
Other surprises abound; we learn that one of Minor Threat's signature songs, "Straight Edge," was about living life drug free. And the Bad Brains anthem "Attitude" was influenced, we are told, by scripture and the success literature of Napoleon Hill.
But there are times when "Hardcore," perhaps in true punk fashion, but with lamentably errant logic, spits in the eyes of undeserving targets. Some artists take issue with the music of the Ramones, for example, as being too tame. It's easy to forget--and any true punk knows this--that the Ramones were not only one of the first punk groups anywhere, but also launched U.K. punk with their famous July 4, 1976, London concert. Without that moment, American hardcore music simply does not exist. Period. Then there is the nasty complaint from one retired punker who wails that today's second-generation pop-punks are unappreciative and ignorant. "They're driving their tour bus on the highway we paved," he moans in the film's near-parting shot.
But assuming that hardcore was not about the money, acclaim or record sales--as so many of the artists here proclaim with pride--then why should he give a flake of mohawk dandruff? To my ears, that sounds an awful lot like a cranky parent squawking: "You ungrateful kids! Turn that down."
Directed, photographed and edited by Paul Rachman; written by Steven Blush (based on his book); music supervised by Anthony Countey; produced by Rachman and Blush. A Sony Pictures Classics release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:40. MPAA rating: R (pervasive language including sex and drug references).
Features interviews with and music by Adolescents, Bad Brains, Black Flag, DYS, Gang Green, Greg Ginn, Rev. Hank Pierce, Paul "H.R." Hudson, Jerry's Kids, Minor Threat, Moby, Henry Rollins, SS Decontrol, Mike Watt and Jerry Williams.