The latest entry in the documentary field known as punkology, ``American Hardcore" celebrates the loud/fast/rude bands of the Reagan years: groups with names like the Cro-Mags and SS Decontrol and Dirty Rotten Imbeciles. They never had hits or radio play or music videos, and they would have been kicked out of the movement -- such as it was -- if they had.
The film, written by Steven Blush and directed by Paul Rachman, is a sloppy mosh note to the genre, with its own excesses and oversights. It's like a flier for a band you've never heard of: torn, soaked with beer, itchy with aggression.
The scene took its cue from the punk revolution of the mid-1970s and such West Coast afterthoughts as the Germs, X, and Fear. The rise of Reagan and the corporate consolidation of the music industry just stoked the flames. While New Wave bands with skinny ties scored Top 40 hits, surf punks and skate thugs across the country were seething. ``Everybody's saying it's morning in America," says one of the musicians interviewed here, recalling the prevailing vibe. ``Somebody's gotta say it's [expletive] midnight."
``American Hardcore" tracks the virus as it erupted in cities across the country. In LA, the Adolescents made records ``to nullify Orange County existence," while the Circle Jerks took on Hermosa Beach. Vancouver had D.O.A., Indianapolis had the Zero Boys, while Washington, D.C., had Bad Brains -- one of the few black punk outfits -- and Minor Threat, both hugely influential. Another critical West Coast group was Black Flag, led by Greg Ginn and given a new lease on life when Henry Rollins stepped in as lead vocalist in 1981.
Boston was a prominent part of the scene, with bands such as Gang Green -- a bunch of bored 15-year-olds from Braintree -- SS Decontrol, and Jerry's Kids causing riots in rock clubs and Elks Club basements throughout New England.
The songs were angry blurts that sounded as if the Ramones had been put through a trash compactor: attitude was key, musicianship was not. The hardcore scene kept a spirit of entropy, anarchy, and resistance going during a fearsomely bland era in American culture. ``Normal people didn't listen to hardcore," says one musician, ``and we liked it that way."
``American Hardcore" is enthusiastic but literally all over the map. It passes by key outfits such as San Francisco's Dead Kennedys and Chicago's Naked Raygun with barely a mention, delves into subgenres like Straight Edge ( punks who eschewed liquor and drugs), and includes so many grainy videotapes of bands playing in front of mosh pits that they blur into one big churn. The music suffers most; whether for reasons of rights clearances or attention-deficit disorder, the songs are rarely heard for more than a few seconds at a time. These bands only sounded as if they sounded the same.
The film's a pretty good scrapbook nevertheless, and it evinces a healthy cranky-old-man disgust with the mega-platinum punk acts of today. Simple Plan, blink-182 , and Sum 41? Growls one grizzled veteran of the hardcore wars: ``It's over. Go home. Your rage is clean."