September 27, 2006

American Hardcore

Misty, watercolored memories of the way punk was

By Michelle Orange

In the mold of a recent host of rock documentaries with target audiences that could ostensibly fill a single, stinky mosh pit, comes American Hardcore, the DIY effort of director Paul Rachman. Inspired by writer Steven Blush's 2001 history of the hardcore punk scene that blistered up in key cities across the country in the early 1980s, Rachman proposed bringing the dubious legacy of bands like "Corporate Deathburger" to the big screen. Together the two spent five years crossing the country tracking down an impressive number of the major players to assemble a comprehensive look at what they argue is the '80s underground music movement that mattered.

Apparently, adolescence in Los Angeles County really blows and perhaps has never blown harder than it did in 1980, when, with the ushering of Ronnie Reagan's rosy cheeks into the presidential office and with a cultural landscape on collar-popping, white-washing autopilot, conditions were primed for a teenage riot. Rachman begins the film in L.A., tracking the emergence of a new kind of punk music that aimed to "say exactly what's on my mind and say it in 30 seconds." As Minor Threat frontman Ian MacKaye saw it, the abject nihilism of '70s punk felt useless by 1980; what the world needed was angry, animal, distilled--hardcore.

Once these pioneers had "trimmed the fat" of melody and musicianship from their repertoire, various scenes across L.A. (Circle Jerks, Minutemen) cohered, as did a growing network of hardcore bands up and down the West Coast and eventually across the country in Washington, D.C., (Bad Brains, Black Flag) and Boston (Negative FX, SSD). Ironically, perennial cool kid New York was last to the rager, and the film spends a little too much time documenting the kind of inter-scene credibility contests most of us were happy to leave behind along with our locker combinations. The upside is a pastiche of inadvertently quotable moments: H.R. from Bad Brains describing the "exuberation of jubilee" inherent in spreading a positive message; "I wanna stay at Joey Shithead's house," is my current favorite, because who wouldn't?

Rachman's chronicle suffers not from a shortage of authentic footage of ready-made hardcore shows, complete with (completely necessary) subtitled lyrics, or doughy, balding, talking heads still bragging about the thrown punches and peed-on chicks of yesteryear, but, perhaps fittingly, of saying anything other than: This happened. Even veterans of the scene turn sheepish when asked what the point was; "It was great but not qualitatively great," says one, which pretty much sums it up. For all of the impressive energy of directionless rage--and, directionless rage being a universal language, it was easy for groups with actual agendas, like white supremacy, to map their mandate onto the hardcore scene--what the documentary only hints at may be hardcore's most notable legacy: that of inspiring better bands.

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Comments (1)

"Corporate Deathburger" is the name of a song by the band MDC.

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