Film: Unearthing the Underground

Paul Rachman's documentary American Hardcore revisits the music scene's early roots

Sony Pictures Classics

Henry Rollins (left) and Black Flag are just one of many bands featured in American Hardcore.

Who knew? When I occasionally visited the Cincinnati-area Hardcore Punk bars of the early 1980s — Newport's spacious but grimy Jockey Club and the smaller Brew House in Walnut Hills — the rebellious scene seemed like a weird anomaly, an already-nostalgic throwback. Now, as the new documentary American Hardcore reveals, this was history-in-the-making.

At the time the Jockey Club got going, with its slam-dancing and bodysurfing and heavy-duty Foster's Oil Can chugging, the cutting-edge Punk of the Sex Pistols and Ramones had already seemingly transmogrified into the more tuneful and melodic New Wave of Elvis Costello, Talking Heads and The Clash.

So this scene felt like an isolated, dangerous cult. There were angry, noisy, ugly bands with stripped-down, clangorous sounds and politicized lyrics more shouted or groaned than sung. They got virtually no national radio or MTV airplay, but they kept drawing crowds — mostly guys — who knew the music. It was their Pledge of Allegiance. And it wouldn't die!

Local bands kept forming and underground national bands like Black Flag, D.O.A., Dead Kennedys, Suicidal Tendencies and Circle Jerks kept coming through Newport.

My own particular favorite were the Crucifucks, whose version of "Hinckley Had a Vision" — about Ronald Reagan's would-be assassin — ended with the lead singer, Doc Corbin Dart, writhing around on his back as if in an epileptic fit. Top that, Flock of Seagulls!

American Hardcore, directed by longtime Punk devotee Paul Rachman and based on Steven Blush's book of the same name, makes clear the Jockey scene wasn't isolated. (Alas, the film isn't about the long-closed Jockey per se or the Crucifucks.)

Hardcore created its own musical and socio-cultural legacy that has had an ongoing impact, even if the scene has cooled down. You'd have to be an "American Idiot" not to recognize that. In particular, the musicians and fans depicted in the film were disaffected and enraged about President Reagan's conservatism as well as about the "corporatization" of youth culture. They also were in love with tattoos, especially those of Black Flag's Henry Rollins.

"Normal people did not listen to Hardcore," says Vic Bondi of the band Articles of Faith, one of the film's many contemporaneous interview subjects. "We liked it that way."

Still, it's not like these bands were unmusical. So many of the songs of the Hardcore bands rat-a-tat style in this film constitute great Rock & Roll — short, direct, simple, vitally energetic and explosively rhythmic. Not always pretty, but unpretentious and heartfelt. And catchy.

American Hardcore had access to a trove of footage of often crude and grainy video-shot performances from the era (the Hardcore scene, like the skateboard scene depicted in Stacy Peralta's 2001 Dogtown and Z-Boys, was well-documented by those who participated). Bands like Black Flag, Minor Threat, MDC, D.O.A., Gang Green and especially the fantastic Bad Brains are shown in their prime here. Alas, there's little on the Dead Kennedys.

I wish Rachman had reduced the number of edits and even the film's own frenetic pacing to allow more individual songs to play longer, but I guess that wouldn't be very Punk of him. On the other hand, it would have reduced the film's fan-boy tone and given American Hardcore more distance from its subject matter.

But then, most of the musicians interviewed in American Hardcore have yet to develop much distance themselves. Many are still at it, touring and occasionally recording. They've now become elder statesman — living links to a time past — much like the Grateful Dead of the 1980s were a reminder of the hippie dream.

They still believe. It'd be interesting for Rachman to revisit them, Michael Apted-style, every seven years. Grade: B

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