Film-Forward Review: [AMERICAN HARDCORE]

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Directed, Edited by & Director of Photography: Paul Rachman.
Produced by: Steven Blush & Rachman.
Written by: Blush, based on his book American Hardcore: A Tribal History.
Released by: Sony Pictures Classics.
Country of Origin: USA. 98 min. Rated: R.

If punk rock is dead, this dry documentary will hardly revive it. Dozens of articulate talking-head interviews offer a city-by-city tour of the hardcore punk scene, which began during the recession of the late ‘70’s and went bust in the mid-‘80’s. But for music that is loud, fast, angry, and in-your-face, the film’s low-key tone and pace is more suitable for a PBS fund-raising drive. With no riveting backstage stories or even drug meltdowns, the staid approach is like an academic Behind the Music.

Nearly 25 years after their heyday in the mosh pit, many of the former punkers are interviewed poolside (a symbol of suburbia if ever there was one) or next to a sleek Apple computer, without irony or comment. Not that we’re given a lot of personal information about these musicians in the first place; presumably many of them were from middle-class homes, especially the Southern California bands. Unlike in Britain, American punk’s beginnings were less class based, but largely a political reaction to Reagan’s “Morning in America” message. It will hardly be a revelation that all punks hated Reagan.

By focusing on the big picture, the film is solely for the initiated, but even they may become numbed by the film’s laundry list of bands. When it seems every punk band under the sun has been mentioned, some may be wondering why the Butthole Surfers and the Dead Kennedy are missing in action. After a short while, the ranting music begins to sound as bland and nondescript as the corporate rock that it was rebelling against.

One of the few interviewed to stand out is Ken Inouye, simply for being the son of a U.S. senator. Amidst all of the posturing testosterone, Millions of Dead Cops’ Dave Dictor is refreshingly and unapologetically gay, not trying to be one of the boys but to be as queer as he can be. What will be news to Eminem is that even techno vegan Moby started out in the Commandos in Darien, CT, and a former roadie is now a Unitarian minister. But we’re given only glimpses of these men’s lives and nothing about the transition from punk rock to tattooed bourgeois (or their present lives).

American Hardcore does stand out for being an oddly impersonal film, compared to many better music documentaries: Greg Whiteley’s look at the brief comeback of punk progenitor – and later devout Mormon – Arthur “Killer” Kane in New York Doll, or one of this year’s best documentaries, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, about the titular manic-depressive outsider artist/musician. The music is integral to these films, but first and foremost they’re about the artists themselves, and not tour dates. Kent Turner
September 22, 2006



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