Despite the film's subtitle, "The History of American Punk Rock, 1980-1986," the documentary does not follow hardcore in a linear, year-to-year fashion. Instead, we get a quick overview of the movement and an explanation of hardcore's creation. This opening section is actually the film's strongest, because many 'core vets are still pissed off even though they're well into middle-age. Director Paul Rachman has dug up some excellent 70's quality-of-life footage, probably from the U.S. Information Agency in the custody of the National Archives and Records Administration. The viewer seems some big hair, pre-fab homes, lame dancing, and then some old hardcore guys who say, 'fuck that shit.'
From there on out, American Hardcore is exciting but certainly problematic. Seeing footage of Bad Brains performing is priceless, and Rachman even includes some insightful interviews from H.R. and his crew. The feel of the contemporary interview footage and the old-school show footage are integrated perfectly with one another. It truly shows the viewer that, while these events occurred decades ago, the world at that time looked quite similar. And, unlike listening to old tapes, the music is loud and clear; it seems that the hissing and bad mixing that I remember from old punk cassettes is all but a memory. There are some glaring technical blunders, though - sometimes we just look at one stationary record cover or still photo and listen to a track for nearly thirty uncomfortable seconds. This music could have been played over a slideshow, or in the background during an interview, to evoke the dynamic sensation the music was intended to stir.
Though a DVD could have been a perfect place for old, complete sets from various bands, the opportunity is wasted. The Special Features consist of pointless reminiscences and some complete versions of songs already featured in the main version of the film. One of these songs is "The Great Takeover" by Bad Brains, though, and it's friggin' awesome.
This film has been oft-criticized for exclusion (what, no Dead Kennedys or Husker Du?), but, really, it could have included even less bands and more insight. How come, after so many years, so many hardcore bands never got the technical expertise or songwriting ability of Bad Brains or Minor Threat? How did these bands change over time? Conformity increased sharply over the years, but it is hardly acknowledged. In this film, the music genre ends abruptly when Greg Ginn and Ian MacKaye 'get tired of it all.' Class is a serious discussion that needs to be addressed - were these toughguys rejecting middle-class mobility, or were they broken-home wretches? A mix? Perhaps most importantly, violence is treated in an almost comic manner. It was a serious part of the early 80s "scene," and contrasts so greatly with the contemporary notion that 'white people are hardly violent at all.'
While American Hardcore isn't too congratulatory, it makes the mistake of letting its reminiscers conclude that hardcore was "great" without justifying that. A token statement about hardcore bands from the last twenty years would have been nice, though everyone should acknowledge that the movement, as it existed in 1980, was definitely extinct by '86, if not earlier. But hardcore came, it was, it went, and, for better or worse, it rocked. American Hardcore is successful in expressing all of those things.