“Do you think the Dos Equis sponsorship is a coincidence?” my wise and wiseass colleague asks, warily regarding his complimentary bottle of beer—emblazoned with two giant Xs—as we warily regard the official after-party for the premiere of the new documentary American Hardcore. “To say nothing of a hardcore party with a beer sponsor,” he adds, his voice drowned out as the stylish-ass crowd at the Chelsea club Stereo swills free booze and waits for Flipper to take the stage, perform the song “Sex Bomb,” and loudly complain that they aren’t allowed to smoke. Moby jumps onstage to play bass. Ian MacKaye, author of the famed hardcore tune “Straight Edge,” which spawned an X’ed-out-hands movement disparaging booze, smokes, and sex bombs (usually), does not. Been that kinda night.
American Hardcore is one of those Dude That Music Scene We Had Was Totally Sweet, Dude docs designed to make said music scene’s principals feel important and you personally feel lousy for having missed it. Don’t get too depressed. The flick succeeds in lending ’80s hardcore punk some gravity and importance but not, by any means, aesthetic beauty or mass appeal. You would most likely have not enjoyed this in person. To the untrained eye the whole thing looks an awful lot like shirtless, glowering, enraged white guys whipping the bejesus out of one another in abandoned warehouses until they get tired and go sleep on each other’s floors. And not just on the floor—on the floor under the sink. This is some gritty shit, though perhaps a bit too enamored of its own sanctimony, hostility, and austerity. “We made this film in the basement, man,” noted the filmmakers (director Paul Rachman and writer Steven Blush) at last Tuesday night’s gala premiere screening at the Chelsea West Cinema, a packed house dotted with glad-handers and occasional celebrities (“The only black people here are in Bad Brains,” noted my wise and wiseass colleague). Steve Buscemi too.
The lights go down and we meet the enemy, and his name is Ronald Reagan. Footage of his first inauguration—inspiring (sarcastic?) applause from (roughly) Steve Buscemi’s section of the theater—is framed as hardcore’s catastrophic catalyst, part of a vapid early-’80s tableau of cardigan sweaters, disco, cocaine, and Foghat that resembles, oddly enough, your average Beck video. A machine to be raged against. From there you get your standard mix: bitchin’ archival footage (a Minor Threat show captured in greasy, grainy, eerily green-tinted tones, like CNN nighttime war footage) and slightly less bitchin’ modern-day commentary from big shots like Henry Rollins, Ian MacKaye, Keith Morris, and Brian Baker, who describes himself and his hardcore brethren as “fuckin’ pricks—we were smart, we were hostile, and we were sober.”
Thankfully, there’s precious few instances of modern-day hardcore punks fellating their idols—we just get a brief spurt of adulation for Black Flag courtesy of Duff McKagan (lookin’ good!) and a biblically stoned Phil Anselmo (not so much!). And for every self-backslapping compliment (hardcore as the true fount of ’80s radicalism—shhhh, nobody tell Chuck D) there are baldly and boldly aired unpleasantries, from the shrill, brutal, biblically uncommercial music itself to the scene’s rather strained relationship with authority (band name: Millions of Dead Cops) to an oft-boorish approach to the (largely absent) ladies best summarized when the dude from TSOL describes his dominant overall attitude of the period as “Yeah, that chick passed out and I pissed in her face, so what?” It’s a shame that hardcore’s most thoughtful and articulate spokesman (MacKaye again) has to spend so much time on the defensive, decrying the scene’s eventual slide into I Went to a Fight and a Hardcore Show Broke Out ultraviolence and struggling to reclaim his own wildly misinterpreted lyrics (“Guilty of Being White” especially).
Still, this all can feel oddly and sweetly romantic, as the film plows ahead chronologically and geographically, pausing for brief primers on the nascent scenes in California, Texas, D.C., Boston, and the Midwest. NYC’s role is best exemplified by Cro-Mags frontman Harley Flanagan, redwood-trunk arms folded matter-of-factly as he wistfully recounts when other scenes would come to visit and get, uh, “housed.” He chuckles. “We sent them back to the suburbs rethinking their whole shit.” For a cartoon-muscular, ridiculously menacing dude fondly reminiscing on the days when he used to pound out-of-towners into oblivion, he has a disturbing appeal, and it’s a bummer when the flick pauses to recount Reagan’s second inauguration, everyone gets disillusioned, and Hardcore‘s talking heads fall all over themselves in a scramble to declare the scene totally dead by 1985 (“The baby was no longer cute”), seeing as NYC hardcore thrived among a small cadre of diehards long after that.
“Yeah, but that’s also coming from a bunch of jaded old motherfuckers,” Flanagan reasons over the phone a few days after the premiere. “Look: It’s not what it was. But it’s always gonna be there, and it’s always gonna be changing.” In the end American Hardcore canonizes everyone you expect it to canonize (Bad Brains, of course, emerges as a mystical, overpowering, unstoppable force) and takes a few last-minute swipes at the Hot Topic–shopping chumps still flogging those dead horses at a Warped Tour near you. Even Harley, for all his optimism and boosterism—”If it wasn’t for hardcore, heavy metal would have killed itself with hairspray and killing imaginary inflatable dragons and shit,” he informs me—indulges in a bit of It Ain’t the Same grousing . . . about New York City itself. For him the flick is a last glimpse at his old, dangerous, beloved Lower East Side. “I could give two shits about Manhattan at this point in my life,” he says. “It isn’t what it used to be, it doesn’t have that same beauty, that same charm. It doesn’t have that danger.”
American Hardcore may fetishize that danger, but ultimately even its more self-congratulatory moments are dulled by the scene’s generally self-loathing and self-negating ways—it’s a bizarre Yeah That Sucked/Yeah That Was Awesome dichotomy that makes the boasting easier to take. The war over hardcore nostalgia continues, though, especially here and especially now, as the CBGB victory lap pulls every last former luminary back onstage for some reunion debauchery—Harley himself will join Agnostic Front, Sick of It All, and Murphy’s Law for an early October bill, just a few days before Bad Brains themselves hold court for two nights at $40 a pop.
It’s all a bit much, maybe, but you’d probably get housed for saying so. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s a part of American history,” says Harley, who’s curating hardcorehalloffame.com in part to cover ground the flick missed. “It’s as genuine as folk music was. It spoke about the struggle that was ours. It spoke about the streets. It spoke about that time period. It’s as much a product of America as the blues was.” An era with Xs on its hands but maybe not Xs on its eyes just yet, faded but still breathing through its broken nose.