American Hardcore – Review

American Hardcore, A for fans, B for anyone else.

Thanks to Grayson, I ended up with two tickets to a showing of the punk documentary American Hardcore at the Sundance Film Festival. The film re-lives the eruption of the often brutal underground scene from 1980-1986.

From the start of the film, when the frantic Bad Brains track “Pay to Cum” is blasting away, it was striking. Hearing that music in a movie theater, or anywhere out in public, was a completely novel experience.

American Hardcore follows the growth of the hardcore scene with a spotlight on bands in LA like Black Flag and Washington, DC’s Minor Threat and especially the Bad Brains.

The movie starts brilliantly, contrasting the feeling of the times- the saccharine 80’s, Ronald Reagan as president, skinny ties- with the alienation so easy to feel in such a conformist era. The political similarities to today were amazing, and in fact it’s scary how today it’s so much worse. I remember wearing an anti-Ronald Reagan button around in high school. Today it feels almost illegal to make the same statement against Bush. Maybe that’s just the mood in Utah, but I doubt it.

So they mix all these clips of the fine and dandy 80’s with interviews with Vic Bondi and Keith Harris who have so many great lines about rebelling and the need to be different. The need to scream at the rest of society. It’s a great entrance to the film.

A bunch of other bands are featured as the movie hops from one thought to the next. Bands that quickly appear and vanish include MDC, DOA, Zero Boys, 7 Seconds, Agnostic Front, and a bunch more. At some points, it feels like they’re just cramming people in, as many as they can. And since this film is twenty years late, and there are so many bands worth mentioning, that’s exactly the idea. Not like there will be another in depth movie about 80’s hardcore.

The film doesn’t really explain how amazing the growth of the scene, across the United States, really was. There wasn’t any MySpace for bands to promote themselves and their shows. Hell, there wasn’t any Internet at all, let alone cel phones. Too bad the film didn’t spend more time on fanzines and other people who documented the scene. The only two ways to keep up on things were going to shows and reading cheaply-made fanzines, often xeroxed illicitly at someone’s parent’s business office.

There is one glaring hole in the movie. Almost no mention about San Francisco’s Dead Kennedys. The DKs were a huge band from that time. They put on an amazing show. But the recent history of the band has been very ugly, including a court case where control of the band’s recordings was taken from Jello and given to the other band members. After the film, during a Q&A, the film-makers basically said that Jello wasn’t talking and getting rights to the DK music was way too difficult. So leave it to the DKs to tell their own story. It will never happen.

The cut we saw clocked in at 98 minutes. And after an hour or so it started to drag. There are some segments that just don’t fit. Like, who ever liked the band Flipper and why are they in this movie? The film-makers say they left out the Misfits because they weren’t a real hardcore band. Okay, then take out Flipper. And that horrible Nig Heist segment is just stupid.

A short segment on gangs in the punk scene goes nowhere as well. It comes and goes so quickly that you just get confused.

As the scene klunks along into the mid-80’s, the film claims to record the death of the scene. Their position is that the scene just burned out and was over by 1986. Bad Brains had stopped playing hardcore in favor of reggae. And clips of Black Flag in their awful metal stage seem to offer proof that things were over. But the film misses the point.

I came into the scene around 1985. The fact is that the scene didn’t die. The legendary bands that were going strong in 1983, like Circle Jerks, Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, Minor Threat, and Bad Brains, were all pretty much broken up or past their prime by 1985. They had made their amazing contributions and were done.

Let’s face it, you can’t blame them. How much longer could they go on making no money, touring in broken-down vans, sleeping on the floors of fans. It was a hard life.

But the scene lived on and evolved after these original hardcore bands died out. Bands like RKL, SNFU, Ill Repute, picked up the flag and ran with it. I could name a hundred more. It was crazy how many good bands would play a single show at the Farm, the On Broadway, even Ruthie’s Inn.
The point is, the scene evolved. And it’s easy for it to leave you behind as new kids flood into the scene and write music that comes out of their lives.

Throughout the film, I thought to myself that this is finally the movie that explains how I feel, where I come from. The way these bands were just exploding with energy, how everything was built from the ground up with an amazing passion. That’s how I’ve tried to live and create. But the film encompasses so many bands and so many people that I could hardly claim these feelings as mine alone.