After a handful of months of watching the trailer and reading reviews about it (one here and another here), American Hardcore finally hit Dallas this weekend. After seeing it today, I'm very safe in saying that I prefer American Hardcore the film over American Hardcore: A Tribal History, the book in which it's based on.
American hardcore itself has only really been talked about in small doses in books and films. Michael Azerrad delves into it quite well in Our Band Could Be Your Life, as do films like Another State of Mind and The Decline of Western Civilization, but there was an even bigger story to be told. When I read American Hardcore: A Tribal History for book research (how can you talk about post-hardcore without knowing what hardcore was?), I felt like I was reading an encyclopedia with narrow-minded/catty exposition courtesy of the author, Steven Blush. While the quotes and stories are really cool and the information is incredibly thorough, the book got very repetitive and annoying with Blush's comments. This is not an easy book to read cover to cover.
With American Hardcore, this is a film that is great from start to finish. The essence of the book (hardcore all across the United States and its varied mindsets behind it) is there, but it doesn't feel like a bitch-fest made up of nostalgic old folks. The usual suspects are here (Henry Rollins, Ian MacKaye, Mike Watt), but they add more to what you've heard before in Get in the Van, Our Band Could Be Your Life and even American Hardcore: A Tribal History. Interviewing people like Joey Shithead, Brian Baker, Dave Smalley, Mugger, Greg Ginn, HR and even Moby make for a story that's different than the stories you've heard before. It's not completely different, but it's way more rounded than anything else I've seen about American hardcore.
One of the prime gems of American Hardcore is the live footage, especially of the mighty Bad Brains. Those guys inspired so many people to start bands that it's not even funny. The deal was, for the longest of time, I had never seen classic Bad Brains footage anywhere. I had heard about how the Bad Brains' shows were life-changing, but their records could only shed so much light. While the footage of Minor Threat, Black Flag and the Cro-Mags is great too, be glad that one of hardcore's greatest bands gets ample coverage in the live and interview department.
The interviews themselves are engaging. These guys don't romanticize their experience, but they definitely make it clear how the experience affected them. Probably the best example comes with Brian Baker being speechless about Minor Threat's first gig opening for the Bad Brains. 26 years after the fact and it is still difficult to put this into words. Incredible.
Various topics that sprang up in the wake of hardcore are touched on. Ian MacKaye explains what "Guilty of Being White" is about and how he's baffled that it's seen as a white-power rally cry. Straight edge is also spotlighted, but not too much. Violence is also covered, but not made light of or romanticized. Overall, this is telling the story like the story happened without making the same points over and over again.
One concern that I had prior to seeing the film was about bitter reminiscing. If the film was filled with it, the tone would become a drag. Yes, punk rock is a cash-making machine depending on what kind of punk rock you make and plenty of people involved in hardcore in the Eighties have negative opinions about how things have played out. Luckily, this kind of back-biting doesn't come in until the last few minutes of the film. Plus, one of the final comments recognizes how cyclical the drive to do something like hardcore has been a part of our culture for a long time and will not go away any time soon. Sure, you can bitch about a band like Panic! At the Disco because their music sucks and you can't escape them because of all their media coverage in the last year. However, that doesn't mean that all new music sucks. You have to look harder for the good stuff. That attitude was what brought hardcore together in the Eighties and it's what still binds people together. American Hardcore is a great reminder of that.