American Hardcore joins a spate of loosely concurrent '80s U.S. independent music histories written by the fans who lived it, like Michael Azerrad's Our Band Could Be Your Life. Similar to the same name book by Steven Blush, who also produced and wrote the screenplay, the prime attraction of this documentary is the collection of rare artifacts and memorabilia from the early hardcore era: posters, flyers, cassette-tape art, cable-access shows, and concert footage from everything from house parties to clubs. Director Paul Rachman succeeds in capturing the vibe of the era, of corporate label consolidation before the Internet and a well-connected underground, when bands had to painfully build themselves up from scratch and D.I.Y. was more means of survival than quaint attitude.
Rachman loosely follows the chronology of hardcore's development by following the isolated scenes that cropped up around major U.S. cities and how relentless touring-by-van cross-pollinated and connected the bands to a larger whole. Lucid commentary by well-known participants like Henry Rollins, Gregg Ginn, and Ian MacKaye capture the general flow of events and anti-Reagan, testosterone-heavy flavor. While paying tribute to the music and the lifestyle, Rachman addresses many of the stickier issues at the hardcore scene's edges, including violence, racism, and misogyny, and how the movement frayed when fans started celebrating that which the musicians were attacking. The geographical shifts can get confusing at times and the intense concentration on the first generation doesn't give the events a lot of context and leaves dangling historical ends. Rachman may have been caught in a bind, between educating neophytes and satisfying the almost doomed-to-disappoint, intense, and obsessive hardcore fan base. Engrossing, if at times disjointed, American Hardcore is still an important chronicle and persuasive paean to North America's second punk wave.