According to music writer Steven Blush, “All true great art takes a long time to get its recognition, and I think that's the story with hardcore.” Blush was a part of it back in the early 1980s, working as a hardcore-band promoter in Washington, D.C. He went on to write a book about the music, which became the inspiration for making the feature documentary American Hardcore.
Although they didn't live in the same town, Hardcore director Paul Rachman knew of Blush even then. Rachman recalls: “I was a college kid in Boston; I went to my first hardcore shows in the early '80s. Steven was like the college hardcore promoter in D.C., and my roommate was his equivalent in Boston. So we kinda knew of each other back then.”
The two regrouped in New York in 1999, around the time when Blush was finishing his book American Hardcore: A Tribal History, and from that meeting sprang the idea to make it into a film. Rachman had been working as a music-video director for years (among other things) and had made videos for many of the bands featured in the book. By December 2001, they had started shooting the film.
For Blush, the partnership was a no-brainer: “Paul had made videos for bands like Bad Brains and Gang Green. But he'd also gone to Hollywood and had made some of the classic MTV videos that they still talk about today, like Alice in Chains' 'Man in the Box', Temple of the Dog's 'Hunger Strike', Pantera's 'Cemetery Gates'. So he had the vibe.”
Set to the violent chords of hardcore punk, the film rapidly intercuts archival photos, music-video footage, and rare live clips of some of seminal bands (video cameras were scarce at the time, so few shows were recorded). Key figures like Henry Rollins of Black Flag, Paul “H.R.” Hudson of Bad Brains, and Joey “Shithead” Keithley of Vancouver's D.O.A. are interviewed about the glory days of the movement, between 1980 and 1986.
Rachman explains that the times were a major factor contributing to the raw energy and political themes of the music: “Coming out of the '70s, Jimmy Carter's gone, this kind of notion in America of this weak America is kind of folding over into this Ronald Reagan America””let's go back to these '50s values. And underneath it all was this youth that didn't want any part of that. No way. Kids were saying, 'I'm really angry; I'm going to make it really loud and I'm going to be really obnoxious. I'm going to do it my way””without a lawyer, without a manager, without a producer, without a record company.'”
The film was made in much the same way. Back in 2000, Rachman took the book to several distribution companies, looking for financial backing, but to no avail. “Nobody got it,” he recalls. “They were like, 'Ah, these bands didn't sell records.' I brought it in to the person who ended up buying the film””it was a three-minute meeting in his office and get the hell out of there. When he came to the table at Sundance to buy the film, I said, 'Do you remember me bringing you the book?' and he said, 'Oh, yeah, I remember and you were right.' Sony Pictures Classics [who bought the film] did not make the movie and they haven't touched it at all. Aesthetically, it has in every single way those same values that I had in my stomach 26 years ago.”
And it shows. For the most part, the interviews are roughly shot, and the sound is dodgy at best. The filmmakers say the pasted-together aesthetic was a conscious effort inspired by the DIY spirit that the bands brought to the music itself. “Hardcore was messy; it was energetic, and the film had to reflect those values,” Rachman says. “Hardcore is not beautifully lit or sound-mixed, and the film needed to be that way. We made the film in a basement, in a closet, with the door shut with a big 'do not disturb' sign on it. Nobody was going to influence this film from the outside. It needed to crash through with the speed and virtue that was the music. And I think the film accomplishes that.
“Ultimately, I'd really like people to walk out of the movie and go, 'What the hell happened? Why aren't we like this anymore?' We hope it will be an inspiration and a testament to the power of youth and a message to kids today: grab it, take it, and seize it.”