"(R) Three and a half stars
Late in American Hardcore, a documentary on American punk rock bands in the early ’80s, some guy who was active in the scene back then starts bitching about the bands playing now, complaining that what happened back in the day was the real thing and these spoiled brats now are clueless and pampered and most certainly not really punk. It was funny as hell listening to the man as he wailed on, apparently unaware that he had morphed completely from teen-age rebel to middle-age coot.
Directed by Paul Rachman and inspired by Steven Blush’s book, the movie barely nods at the late ’70s punk explosion in Great Britain. The filmmaker’s contention is basically this: Punk happened in the late ’70s, then got co-opted as the New Wave movement started making inroads on the charts and everybody put on skinny ties and tried to cash in.
Then the backlash happened. American kids, frustrated by the whole New Wave thing, started forming bands that played simple two or three chord punk even faster than the first wave British groups. They called what they were doing “hardcore” and it spread to towns big and small all around the country.
Including here. There was a thriving music scene in Indianapolis in the early ’80s and I was part of it, as founder and frontman of the Future, one of the New Wave bands that so irritated some of the hardcore people. Of the various styles of rock on the local scene, the most popular punk band by far was the Zero Boys. I thought the group was more old school punk than hardcore — the hooks in their songs were much more catchy than your typical hardcore band — but hey, what do I know?
Paul Mahern of the Zero Boys is one of the many commentators featured in American Hardcore. Though Paul gets a fair amount of face time, there is less than 20 seconds of footage of the Zero Boys, which is a shame. Then again, a lot of popular bands barely get a mention in the movie, including groups like the Dead Kennedys and Hüsker Dü.
Why were such notables excluded? Maybe it was over music rights, or inter-band squabbling (I’m talking about you, Hüsker Dü). Or maybe they just didn’t feel like waxing nostalgic on camera.
Hard to tell. American Hardcore hops all over the place; maybe they just hopped over those bands. Much is made about the do-it-yourself nature of hardcore and about how the bands were all about living in the moment, not becoming stars. Perhaps the filmmakers thought that a scattershot approach was the best way to represent the grass-roots nature of hardcore. Or maybe not.
Regardless, the documentary is entertaining. The army of talking heads offer a wide variety of viewpoints on the scene, some windy, some funny, some informative and some scary. But it’s the music that fuels the film. In addition to the 18 seconds of Zero Boys footage, you’ll see Black Flag (check out Henry Rollins before he beefed up), Bad Brains, Flipper, Gang Green, Minor Threat and many others.
Hopping from one geographical area to another, American Hardcore covers the scene from the beginning until it fragmented a few years later. If hardcore mattered to you then, you’ll probably find enough rewards to warrant a look.