Sony // 2005 // 100 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Ryan Keefer (Retired) // February 20th, 2007
The history of American punk rock 1980-1986.
We always go back around and revisit the way things used to be two decades or so ago, or maybe at the quarter century mark. Growing up back in the day, I grew my hair rather longish and put a large patch of Jimi Hendrix on the back of my jean jacket back in the mid to late '80s before being swept down in a wave of heavy metal and what I like to call "Hail Satan!" music that was hard and fast. But I really enjoyed Hendrix and other acts of the '60s and their penchant for being musically daring, either in the studio or on stage, and he was the first musician for which I wanted to get every possible recording. And since you don't forget your first, his albums still permeate my iPod to this day.
I really liked heavy metal, which eventually gave way to the wave of grunge music, and at least now in terms of rock and roll, things have seemed to grow a little bit stale. Sure, pop music has never been stronger, but what's out there for the individual who wants more than a heavily produced three and a half minute song, including a music video that seems to follow your subconscious around so much that you want to file a restraining order against the "artist" who wrote that crap? Sadly, there's not too much. Aside from Pearl Jam, the only acts that seem to be willing to throw a lot out there are Blink 182 and Green Day. And as any self-respecting rock fan will tell you, Billie Joe Green Day sounds way too much like the Sex Pistols' Johnny Rotten, with the exception of Rotten kicking the beejeezus out of the guy who sang "Time of Your Life" on an acoustic guitar. And with the new documentary American Hardcore, the viewer gets an up close and personal look at the American punk rock scene in the early '80s, from the major players that are still around now who still possess the power of recollection.
The documentary is inspired from the book that Steven Blush wrote, and what the film does, first and foremost, is to show the average music fan that The Ramones might have been the founding fathers of American punk back in the mid to late '70s, but they didn't seem to spur the kind of immediate interest that many would have hoped. Disco was still the predominant music of choice, but when Ronald Reagan was elected to office, there seemed to be a large backlash from the youth of America who felt that they were being swept back into a world of '50s values and life choices, and that simply wasn't right for them. Their frustration was channeled into their music, and bands like Black Flag, Bad Brains, Minor Threat and others, mainly starting in Los Angeles and Washington, emerged like wildfire from their urban brushes. Almost all of them eschewed drugs (figuring the hippies could smoke the pot, while the preppies did lines of cocaine like Tony Montana) and had to defend their messages from white supremacists, who seemed to be in the movement more for the violence than the music. Because they seemed to be discounted because of their music and their fans, a lot of what they had to do was self-taught, namely the mass production of albums. Using a template, some artwork and a Xerox, bands could make their own covers for their records. Because the industry wasn't really promoting these bands, they largely had to self-promote as well. A day's work for a punk rock musician mainly consisted of putting up as many concert flyers on as many telephone poles as possible and hope that maybe they could get a hundred people to see their show at a venue that they would make little to no money on.
Yet despite the obstacles to climb, many bands managed to persevere and continue to play. Either at a suburban kid's party, or at a small club, or even at a larger 500 seat (gasp!) venue, the music always survived, despite a routine that was as subversive as they came. Black Flag's Henry Rollins and Greg Ginn, Bad Brains' H.R., Minor Threat's Ian MacKaye are some of the many people that discuss their origins, music and lives in the era. The Minutemen's Mike Watt makes for a decent tour guide as he shows the handheld cameraman some of the anonymous yet infamous spots where big time bands first played in Los Angeles.
Thankfully, what American Hardcore does a little better than specials like the Independent Film Channel's Punk: Attitude or the various heavy metal retrospectives is that it sticks to what it knows without trying to be too flashy. It would be easy to focus on one musician for the balance of the film and recall how he crystallized the band he was in and the musical movement he was a part of. Don't get me wrong, some of that type of footage exists and is in here. But director Paul Rachman is an individual with love for the music first and he and Blush were raised in the era, so those types of clips that seem to appear in every other documentary are thankfully gone, making way for performance footage with some of the artists that shaped American punk rock.
On top of a pretty good film, Rachman has included some supplemental material that's worth checking out. First off is a commentary with him and Blush where they recall some of the interview experiences and provide an accompaniment that was pretty bland. "This scene is this, that scene is that," stuff like that. But they also share their thoughts about bands when they appear on screen and what they thought of them at the time they played. It's not too bad and is heavy on the nostalgia side of things, but works pretty well. There's another 50 minutes of interviews that didn't make the final cut of the film, most of which are pretty quick, so much so that they seem to cut off the beginnings of some pretty good stories. However, some of these quick snippets are funny, like Zander Circle Jerks saying that Emilio Estevez in Repo Man was basically the antithesis of punk, and another story about how some starving punkers were fed one night in Richmond, Virginia. There's also a lot of reminiscing with concert flyers and in a couple of cases, some photographers of the era get some extended time to show their pictures and recall some of the circumstances involved in taking them. Ed Colver is one of the photographers and some of his work is showed off in a stills gallery to go along with what is seen in the film. Included with these are six dated performances from Bad Brains, SS Decontrol and Jerry's Kids, among others, and D.O.A. and the Circle Jerks play as part of various premieres for the film.
All in all, American Hardcore effectively captures what is was like for some of the bands in America's more underground musical genre at a time where underground music was all that anyone had. It's a welcome retrospective, featuring the movers and the shakers of bands that helped shape the scene, and as it was said in the film, there may be another rock movement, "but it can never be hardcore."
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Audio Commentary with Filmmakers
* Deleted Scenes
* Bonus Musical Performances
* Photo Gallery
* Official Site