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AMERICAN HARDCORE, 2006
Starring: Henry Rollins, Ian MacKaye, Keith Morris, Flea
Inspired by Steven Blush's book "American Hardcore: A tribal history" Paul Rachman's feature documentary debut is a chronicle of the underground hardcore punk years from 1979 to 1986. Interviews and rare live footage from artists such as Black Flag, Bad Brains, Minor Threat, SS Decontrol and the Dead Kennedys.
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Springing from the suburbs and fuelled by the anger and isolation of teenagers too young to enjoy early punk rockers such as The Ramones, hardcore punk was a fast, louder, more aggressive form of music. Typified by distorted guitars, incredibly fast tempos and frontmen who shouted rather than sang, it quickly gained a reputation for inciting violence and anti-social behaviour among American teenagers in the early to mid-1980s. But while the movement itself succumbed to an unhealthy mix of infighting and nihilism, the roots of hardcore grew into a strong and healthy independent music scene that thrives even today.
The rise and fall of hardcore punk, and the indelible imprint it left on those who lived through it, is perfectly captured by Paul Rachman's insightful documentary. Based on the book "American Hardcore: A Tribal History" by Steven Blush, it gathers dozens of musicians who played in numerous bands over that six year period and allows them to tell us the history of the scene in their own words. The result is an exciting story filled with the hope and energy of youth. Simultaneously nostalgic for days gone by but honest about the movement's many faults, they paint a picture of numerous regional scenes eventually coming together through the constant touring of hardcore's best-remembered bands. Groups such as Black Flag from Los Angeles and the Bad Brains from Washington, DC, were instrumental in opening up lines of communication, pathways across America that many bands followed and continue to follow even today.
It was a music born of adolescent frustration and largely male angst. It is not surprising that there are very few women interviewees in the film's 100 minute running time, as hardcore's greatest appeal was the opportunity to release pent-up aggression. Fights and confrontations with the police were therefore a common occurrence, and though women found a place in hardcore, documenting the scene through photography and independent magazines, the bands were invariably all-male affairs, fronted by angry young men like Henry Rollins (Black Flag) and Ian MacKaye (of DC hardcore band Minor Threat.) None of the people interviewed are afraid to shy away from the subject of violence in the scene, with many recounting stories of fights and dangerous situations in which they found themselves. But these stories, as well as the racism that poisoned hardcore punk for many, are often told with a sigh. It was the constant threat of violence, after all, that caused many of the interviewees to become ever more disenchanted with the scene.
American Hardcore is, in a way, a cautionary tale. While speaking enthusiastically of the great music and incredible bands that populated the genre during its hey day, many of the musicians involved concede that there was no grand plan. Hardcore had no agenda, and that's how its early innovators liked it; but in an anarchic scene where the only rule was "There are no rules," regimented regional outfits were quickly born. The continued popularity of Ronald Reagan among most of society left an originally vibrant community of angry punk rockers feeling jaded, and soon the only thing they could do was turn on each other.
There is no defining moment that ends this film; it, like the scene it documents, almost ends on a whimper. Some bands signed contracts with major record companies; some disbanded in a haze of vitriol and spite. For a large number of those involved, it was the death knell for punk rock. And yet from hardcore's charred corpse grew the experimentation of post-hardcore as well as the beating heart of independent music. Hardcore's DIY ethos continues to inspire young adults today, while its most recognisable faces are seen as elder statesmen of punk - a title that no doubt chafes with their constant calls for people to think for themselves. And yet their story, magnificently captured in this film and interspersed with performance footage (some of which was shot by Rachman himself in the 1980s), paints a picture of disaffected youths making remarkable achievements in the face of adversity. The reality is undoubtedly nowhere near as romantic, but for those with an interest in rock 'n' roll's rougher edges American Hardcore is essential viewing.