24 February 2007

Movie review: American Hardcore

I read Steven Blush's American Hardcore a few years back and loved it. It's comprehensive, stuffed with great quotes and stories, a little bit disorganised and bluntly opinionated. Just a terrific object lesson in writing an entertaining and enlightening oral history by a guy who was there for a lot of it. On top of that, I'm always biased in favour of books about American independent music in the 80s. I find the stories of these bands more inspiring than any others in rock history. It's partly a personal thing; I toured in a van with my own unknown band for a few years, so I know how hard it is.

But I think what I admire most about these bands is that, prior to 1984, none of them ever caught a break. The biographies and histories of all worthy artists, scenes, genres in rock all have a "big break" moment that functions as an early turning point in the story. Sam Philips discovered Elvis. Brian Epstein found the Beatles. All the San Francisco bands were signed by major labels. Same with the British class-of-'77 punks and the CBGB denizens just before them. Same again with Seattle's finest in the early '90s. Let the glory years begin. A few years later comes a second turning point and the glory years come to close. A key member dies, a key member quits in a huff, the drugs result in shitty records, the fans lose interest.

Hardcore never had that first turning point. The second one, the end of the line, came in 1984. Blush posits the disillusion resulting from Reagan's re-election as the death blow, but ignores the equally damning effects of success. Following the critical success of R.E.M.'s Murmur, indie rock was suddenly a viable commodity in all its forms. This led to 1984's critical landslide (q.v. #'s 4, 6, 8, 14, 20) and within two years Husker Du and the Replacements had deals with majors.1 What made hardcore unique for the first few years was the complete lack of commercial expectations. None of those bands, in their wildest dreams, ever believed they could wind up on MTV someday. No one thought they'd ever make a dime. Once the very possibility of success was introduced, the scene was never the same.

But back to the big break, or lack thereof. For the bands whose greatest years passed before 1984, there is no moment in their story when their popularity suddenly began snowballing, took on a life of its own. All of these bands, particularly the big four (Bad Brains, Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, Minor Threat) slogged it out on the road month after month, built their fanbases one kid at a time, built their legacies one show at a time. Oftentimes interviews with has-been bands for rock retrospectives are suffused with a sense of loss. We had it all, man. When I look back? We thought it would never end. But hardcore bands? They never had anything to lose.

So last night I watched Paul Rachman's companion film and... not the same. For one thing, the movie suffers from the same shortcoming as any narrative film adapted from a novel: you can fit more detail in a book. In the case of a documentary history, this detail can be crucial.

Biggest problem, right off the bat: the Dead Kennedys are barely mentioned.2 It's a glaring enough omission to make me think there must be a reason behind it, most likely a refusal of the band members to be interviewed for the project.3 But Blush's book has pages of quotes from Jello Biafra, so why sit out the film? Because Feral House is an independent press but Sony is a big corporate film studio? Who knows?

Other than that, the raw material is there. There's some decent stuff in the interviews once you wade through the usual we were just like fuck you man and fuck your rules man nonsense that always pervades in conversations with aging punks. The archival footage is terrific, the kind of stuff that makes you say, "Thank God someone actually thought to film this." It's not that surprising to see good footage of, say, Bad Brains or Minor Threat, but the onstage brawl at an SS Decontrol show is an absolute treasure. It's one thing to hear grizzled dudes bragging about just how violent the scene was back then, it's quite another to confront the indisputable photographic evidence.

The film's biggest problem isn't the gaps in the source material, though, it's the editing. There's almost no attempt to really tell a story. Most of the interviews and live clips seem thrown together. There's an intro (Reagan-disco-yuppies-arena rock-blahblahblah) and an outro (the scene petering out in the wake of Reagan's re-election). About two-thirds of the way through, there's a half-assed attempt to cover each of the major scenes from a geographical standpoint (like the book's chapters). But other than that there's no narrative thread, just one visceral impression after another. This may have been an artistic choice by Rachman, but if it is it doesn't work. It comes off looking too haphazard, like an editor's early draft. For an audience already enamoured of the music and well-versed in its history, this isn't such a big deal. But if you're looking for a coherent introduction to the story of hardcore, you won't find it here.

The most surprising impression I took from the film, one I had never really read about or heard discussed before, isn't even mentioned explicitly in the film. Being straight, I don't have much of a gaydar, but as I watched one interview after another, it occurred to me that more than a few of the subjects seemed gay. It may have been the way they talked, the way they dressed, even the way some of their apartments were decorated. There were a few scattered bands with out members at the time (Husker Du, MDC, Big Boys), but nothing that's ever been addressed as a dominant theme of the era's history. I'd be curious to hear a gay man's take on the film, particularly one who doesn't know much about hardcore.

The more I think about it, the more it makes sense. Here was a subculture that attracted kids who felt like outcasts from a surburban world that offered little quarter to its non-conformists: a conservative environment in a conservative era. Both the bands and the crowds were composed of teenagers, the quintessential age of sexual confusion. There was male bonding all around, immediate emotional release in the music and (intense, shirtless) physical contact in the pit. There were very few females involved with the scene and even fewer songs written about them. The whole scene was a tailor-made refuge for the emotionally confused and disenfranchised seeking some sort of social connection. I wonder how many kids in those bands and in those pits grew up and came out. I really think this could be the great untold story of the hardcore scene.

    Tangents & Clarifications
  1. R.E.M. would take longer to follow, but keep in mind their records were already going gold on IRS; they didn't need a major yet. [Return]
  2. The Misfits also go unmentioned in the film, despite getting an entire chapter of Blush's book. But while Danzig and the boys may have built one of the most resilient and bafflingly rabid followings of any of the era's bands, in a way they aren't really part of this story. Certainly their own story deserves to be told, but in the context of the national hardcore scene being discussed here they're really only a footnote. So here you are. [Return]
  3. Blush, incidentally, is also not interviewed. He's credited as the film's screenwriter, but there's no voiceover narration either. I suppose he gets points for not wanting to stroke his own ego by preening before the camera, rattling aff a string of I-was-there tales, but considering how much of the book is told in first person, it seems a bit odd. [Return]


Anonymous said...

i like this direction. great idea to write this. you win again!

Anonymous said...

Peyton Manning vs. Brett Favre

Anonymous said...

yo Bjorn, you readin' this comments?

the show went pretty good but all my riffs were lost in space due to lack of adequate amplification.

black flag rules!