Movie Review: "American Hardcore"

2 Stars

Directed by Paul Rachman
Sony Pictures Classics

Ever wonder what Moby was up to before he became an electro-pop star?

Me neither.

At least that’s what I thought until I saw Paul Rachman’s new documentary, “American Hardcore.”

“Hardcore” music emerged as a consequence of the ’70s punk-rock explosion. Disappointed that their musical heroes were trading in black boots and militant politics for glamour and coke, down-and-out youth in cities across America decided to bleed rock dry of decorative superfluities.

Writing songs that rarely broke the two-minute mark, bands like Black Flag, Minor Threat, Bad Brains, and the Minutemen carved out a dirty, graceless, and violent subculture that didn’t so much thrive as fester during the days of the Reagan administration.

But I almost forgot about Moby.

Turns out the bald herbivore was an active member of the Hardcore scene in Connecticut, playing in a band called the Vatican Commandos. He was kicked out after the group released their first EP.

It gets even better. When seminal band Flipper needed a temporary stand-in singer to round out their hilarious and horrible noise, they asked Moby to step in. So, for two days, Moby was the lead singer of Flipper.

Unfortunately for Rachman and nostalgic 40-year-olds everywhere, that’s about as interesting as “American Hardcore” gets.

Rachman isn’t interested in shining any kind of analytical light onto those six years of rock history. He just thinks Hardcore rules, and he wants you to think it rules too.

So instead of hunting down the movement’s precursors, examining the actual music with a critical eye, or constructing a plausible narrative of the scene’s downfall, Rachman just lets former band members talk about how much cooler they were twenty years ago.

And, unsurprisingly, musicians who screamed along to no-more-than-three-chord guitar riffs aren’t the most self-aware or analytical bunch.

As a result, there’s a lot of boring filler. We hear again and again that work sucks, school is boring, and Reagan was a fascist. It’s actually kind of like listening to a Hardcore song, except the music is gone and the words are stammered rather than yelled.

There are a few exceptions. Ian MacKaye, who fronted Minor Threat and is arguably the godfather of Hardcore, is an articulate (if self-righteous) interview subject. Dr. Know of the Bad Brains, who is charismatic and probably crazy, also entertains.

If only Rachman had bothered to let viewers hear an entire song! In a documentary about music, there’s actually very little music that does more than transition between scenes.

Bottom Line: “American Hardcore” isn’t a total waste, but if you want a real feeling for the movement you’d do better to find yourself a guitar and a garage.

—Reviewer Richard S. Beck can be reached at rbeck@fas.harvard.edu.