LAST WORD: Circle Jerks' Zander Schloss doesn't provide any encouragement.
Fast and semi-coherent, like the music it documents, Paul Rachman’s American Hardcore, from the book by Steven Blush, uses an efficient equation: band members talking + flyer graphics + grainy clips from live shows. It’s stripped-down and to the point, and if the point is hammered on again and again, so what? At least the film avoids questions of influence. It’s not that these hardcore punk bands were influential that makes them important. It’s that they existed at all.
And it seems that Rachman has tracked them all down. One after another, band members show up to talk, like comedians in The Aristocrats telling variations on the same joke. Despite the bashings of their heyday, they’re articulate, intelligent. These are not burnouts. They have something to be proud of, even if the joke was on them: George W. Bush’s America is the America hardcore punk predicted.
American Hardcore makes its case early. The underground dissemination of 1970s punk rock in Ronald Reagan’s America fostered a youth subculture of frustration and dissatisfaction uninterested in getting ahead or even in liking anything. Not exactly nihilistic (in the sense that the Sex Pistols were nihilistic), American punk rock as it evolved into hardcore was productively negative in a way American culture hasn’t seen since. Politicized by America’s turn to the right, early-’80s hardcore was doggedly anti-authoritarian and completely removed from the entertainment industry. Making people happy was not its goal.
Henry Rollins of Black Flag and Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat are the stars of any history of US hardcore, but in Rachman’s film they’re but two of many. If anything, American Hardcore belongs to the Bad Brains, the black DC outfit from which hardcore sprang. One of the film’s early statements, that hardcore was music divorced from blues riffs copied from African-Americans, is belied by Rachman’s insistence on the centrality of the Bad Brains and their leader, the enigmatic Paul H.R. Hudson, here revealed as a contemplative lost soul.
American Hardcore pays strict attention to hardcore as a regional phenomenon, a coming-together of scenes from all corners. The “This is Boston, not LA” scene is well represented. Besides showing an SS Decontrol family reunion, the film has footage of Gang Green (including their bizarro Spinal Tap endgame) and Jerry’s Kids. An infamous Negative FX show where that band opened for Mission of Burma and started a riot is a signal moment, an assertion of hardcore’s superiority to a current indie-rock culture obsessed with art-rock reunion shows.
Still, Southern California tends to dominate the narrative. Mike Watt of the Minutemen reminds us that when hardcore was born, music in America meant Peter Frampton in a kimono. Keith Morris, an early member of Black Flag and a founder of the Circle Jerks, is the film’s presiding spirit, and the Jerks’ Zander Schloss of Repo Man fame gets the last word. True to form, it is not a word of encouragement.
As a music-scene summation, American Hardcore bears comparison with Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People, minus the way that film lets itself off the hook with its cutesy we suck–ism. Hardcore ruled, as Boston’s Dogmatics sarcastically had it, but it’s over. Its survivors, who did not expect fame or success, bear the burden of living in a world worse than the one they railed against.