SUNDANCE: "American Hardcore" Review

by | January 26, 2006 | Comments

Paul Rachman‘s "American Hardcore," based upon a book of the same name by Steven Blush, is about as definitive a chronicle of American punk as we’re likely to get. Packed with interviews, rough-but-compelling concert footage, and astute commentary, the film places the hardcore into a socio-political context and offers much for fans and non-acolytes to enjoy.

Hardcore is the name for the louder-faster punk rock that sprouted in the suburbs of Los Angeles, Washington and Boston in the late 1970s-early 1980s. Its participants were largely teenagers, who saw themselves as soldiers in a battle against both mainstream music and conservative politics. Their weapons were absurdly short, fast, loud songs. A sense of community in the music spread across the country; while hardcore was never popular, its adherents, from California to Minneapolis to Boston, became a loose network, helping bands find lodging, gigs, and camaraderie.

The film contains sharp interviews with most of the prominent figures of the era (Henry Rollins of Black Flag, Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat, H.R. of the Bad Brains) and gives due to some largely forgotten groups (like Boston’s Gang Green and Jerry’s Kids, or Indianapolis’ Zero Boys). The concert footage is often as raw as the music itself; because video equipment at the time was poor by today’s standards, and because it was shot by teenagers, it’s sometimes hard to tell what’s happening in a given scene. But it’s probably all that survives from the era, and much of the footage is remarkable, from the Bad Brains’ intense stage antics to the pulsing movement of the punks in the crowds.

"American Hardcore" is not simply a love note to the era; it emphasizes the filthy conditions in which the bands lived, the difficulties involved in touring, and the violence at shows that eventually caused the movement to splinter. But the film also demonstrates how much of the edgy popular music of today, from mainstream punk to indie rock, borrowed greatly from hardcore.

Punks (by nature) will quibble with the film, and will note omissions of key bands or scenes. But for anyone who wants to investigate hardcore, this is a great place to start.

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