DON’T CALL IT PUNK!

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Posted November 19, 2007 in Film

In a fine moment of karmic payback, the year a hungover America chose its oldest president, Ronald Reagan, as a rebellion remedy, his two homebases spawned a youth movement that was the antidote to the antidote: hardcore punk.  From Los Angeles and Washington DC the teens stormed—sweaty, young, angry—and their underground movement gathered up every misfit who sneered at skinny ties and stadium rock.  Fueling their frustration was the apt suspicion that the drugged out 70s decadence their older brothers and sisters had explored was about to be taken over by conformist pod people, toting along the forced innocence of khakis and sitcoms.  As one of the thrashers in Paul Rachman’s exhaustive documentary says, "You can take that and shove it up your ass."

Rachman brackets his lengthy history of hardcore with stretches of punk philosophy that ponder the message of a movement made by kids who couldn’t necessarily articulate their manifesto at the time.  Now, they can, and everyone gets a turn.  The roll call of talking heads is a feat—Rachman gets face time with musicians even your librarian knows: Minor Threat, Circle Jerks, Bad Brains, Black Flag, Bad Religion.  He even tracks down The Adolescents’ notoriously unpredictable frontman Tony Cadena, which not even his band members can do on the night of a big show.  But Duff McKagen?  Matthew Barney?  Moby?  With every tangential appearance, the film feels less like the story of hardcore and more like its encyclopedia—even the rawest punk song knows when to stop short to leave the audience wanting more. (Interestingly enough—as well as surprising—the doc does inadvertently build a strong case for giving up the sauce and pills; you can weed put the boozers from the straight edge punks merely by the mess they’ve made of their faces and sludgy speech.)

Though it’s scattershot and oddly structured by geography instead of theme or narrative arc, the middle slog of Rachman’s documentary is the liveliest—a barrage of cuss-heavy, brusque quotables from some natural storytellers, few of whom have an internal censor.  We learn that the band Journey makes punkers "wanna vomit," that punks are comfortable with self-denigration (when did you last dub yourself a "violent, grave-digging rapist?"), and that the scene knew their odds of breaking into mainstream radio were akin to "a black guy saying I want to be president of the Klu Klux Klan."  Even better is the DIY footage of old flyers and shows that thrusts you right into the middle of a hoard of bare chested teens—which would sound sexy if the reality weren’t so bruised and sweaty.

In the mid-80s, hardcore vanished in a flash as its awkward teens blossomed into legit musicians trying their hand at metal and reggae.  It’s time had come and gone and isn’t likely to come again even though its larger social context has returned, complete with a lousy economy, a common enemy president, and even the slim electroclash neon neckties.  Inevitably comes the reminiscing about the long lost good old days—but this time, the forefathers of punk are spot on.  The hardcore scene has evolved from the songs major record labels dismissed as unsellable (they didn’t see that the movement was driven by the power, not the musical talent), to heavily promoted bands that are all sound and no fury. As one punker sighs, today’s hardcore bands are "driving their fucking tour buses on the roads we paved."

 


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