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American Hardcore

In the documentary American Hardcore, one of the interviewees neatly sums up the blazing glory of the early-'80s American hardcore punk scene by describing his favorite band's career trajectory: "Six flyers, five shows, one album, 18 songs." The scene's DIY ethos extended from bands that barely existed to fans who felt they could make them legends, if they believed hard enough. In a way, that's also American Hardcore's philosophy. Director Paul Rachman and his collaborator Steven Blush (fleshing out his book of the same name) present a barrage of performance snippets, poster art, and talking heads, practically demanding that viewers submit to the idea that 1980-1986 was some kind of golden age for free musical expression.


The problem is that people who know nothing about hardcore are unlikely to be persuaded by hundreds of 30-second samples of uniformly hookless thrash, and those who know a lot about hardcore are likely to bristle at what Rachman and Blush miss. Some major acts like The Dead Kennedys and Hüsker Dü barely get mentioned—most likely because of rights issues and lingering problems between the band members—and the filmmakers reduce the genre's politics to generalized left-wing rebellion, which ignores hardcore's significant neo-fascist element. A lot of the testimonials here come from people who tout hardcore's "anything goes" reaction to the corporate rock-star ideal, yet the genre's fan base was notoriously rigid when it came to style, and quick to call bands "sellouts" if they started demonstrating a little musicianship.

All that said, American Hardcore is still a raucous, relevant documentary, capturing the mood of the times and the participants' best anecdotes. And the archival footage is invaluable. Bands like Bad Brains, Minor Threat, and Black Flag left behind some great records, but the majority of hardcore acts were best experienced live—preferably in the middle of nowhere, far from any big rock arena. If nothing else, American Hardcore gets that the best thing about hardcore was that it was so fleeting. This wasn't a genre that dealt in business models. Remember: that's six flyers, five shows. In punk, plans are for poseurs.

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