Guilty of Being Trite
American Hardcore Blankly Remembers All Those Young Shirtless Men And Their Rage
If there's any message to director Paul Rachman and writer Steven Blush's 100-minute documentary American Hardcore, it's that there isn't much of a message at all. If you were there, you repeat the same anecdotes over and over again, or you move on to the world that you spent two or three years banging your head against. Or just move on. Given the condition that a few of the spokesmen for the era appear to be in--Keith Morris and Harley Flanagan come immediately to mind--moving on looks like it was the right course of action. There's just not a lot to say about hardcore. Shit happens.
That is the essential problem with the documentary. With the opening, the filmmakers try to attach the rise and decline of hardcore to the Reagan years. Gamely following that contrived plot line, they look at Ronald Reagan's 1984 re-election as a defining moment in the decline of hardcore--at the same time, Rachman and Blush avoid any serious investigation into musical roots or inspiration. All they would have you do was look at the huge search and destroy tattoo on Henry Rollins' back. Respect your elders.
Maybe that says as much about Rachman and Blush as it does about hardcore. Rachman comes from Boston, and Blush from Washington; both cities were breeding grounds for musical tribalism that never really moved beyond the locally legendary. As they watch the movement spread across the United States, past Detroit, into Texas and elsewhere, it appears to spread like a jack-booted, slam-dancing virus across the subcontinent.
But that story line predictably disintegrates along with any attempt to describe what hardcore was in the first place. The interviews themselves--which get tiresome--are as notable for what they pass over as what they do to define the era. Rollins, who has made a pretty good living moving on from Black Flag, looks almost bemused by his formative experience. Yes, people beat the living shit out of one another. Yes, it sounds crazy but it's true. But given his current calling, it seems that he really considers this more of a testosterone-infused phase in his own evolution as a person. He never really engages the central question: What exactly did he personally add to the music? And hey, he was well into his 20s at the time, a grown man, articulate, and intelligent.
Who were these people, anyway? Ex-Minor Threat bassist Brian Baker, given an extended license as a spokesman, appears to defy the central thesis. If hardcore is all about people who had no chance to make it on the radio, what is this Georgetown Day School-educated Bad Religion guitarist doing telling us about it? Well, we find that it was a phase in his own career as a guitarist--not because it said anything, but because it opened up opportunities. While there's nothing wrong with careerism, Rachman seems to shy from asking the obvious questions.
Ian MacKaye is given time to talk but has curiously little to say, either. The DIY bit is a little old but inspiring. Oddly, MacKaye gets most passionate in his account of his bucking the trend. "We never left hardcore," he tells Rachman. "Hardcore left us." So he looks at hardcore as a phase in his own life, something that he had to get out of his system before he was able to get anywhere else.
Black Flag bassist Kira gets a chance to say something about hardcore's somewhat, well, adolescent attitude toward women, but she drops the ball. That's too bad, because she's the only woman musician interviewed. Then we segue to Rollins wiggling his pelvis in the opening intro to "Slip It In." A little more skepticism and a little more confrontation in the ranks--aside from scenes of Boston boys hammering on one another--would have helped. Hardcore was confrontational at its peak, during its chaotic, primordial phase, when no one knew what was happening. Once it got a name, it lost its shine and, perhaps, its shame.
For all the problems with the documentary, Hardcore is worth watching for the grainy visuals. But like any 10-band mini-fest at the Wilson Center, you have to pick and choose. And if you stay inside, you go deaf.
The extensive footage of Bad Brains is what makes American Hardcore worth watching. Rachman doesn't confront the obvious fact that Bad Brains were usually the only black kids in the place. You get the idea that Rachman and Co. ended up wishing they'd done a documentary about them instead--someone should. But Bad Brains feel alien to what hardcore becomes in the process of Hardcore--a ritualized sort of anguish, largely practiced among middle-class white kids with real or imagined chips on their shoulders. Bad Brains, especially with their quotations from Napoleon Hill's Think and Grow Rich, were a calculated venture into unknown territory.
As a coherent piece, American Hardcore can be a little mind-numbing after 60 minutes. One slam dance is very like the next, and one more shaved-head, testosterone-infused jock hurling off the stage isn't going to be that much different from the next. (Unless, of course, you're in the flick--and Rachman has certainly counted on a large body of squinting 40-year-olds paying their $10 to see themselves.) If there's any epochal moment in this documentary, it's this brief take from a Boston concert: a line of sweating, booted jocks lining up to hurl themselves onto a pulsating pig pile of their like-minded, somewhat self-absorbed compatriots. And that, strangely, might have been what the Reagan era was all about.