It's been more than 20 years since "This Is Spinal Tap" mocked not only the idea of the rock band, but also its champion, the rockumentary. People still love that movie, and they're still serious about their music. Along with "Tenacious D: The Pick of Destiny," March new-release shelves will carry numerous rock docs, including a 40th anniversary release of D.A. Pennebaker's timely "Don't Look Back."
"American Hardcore: The History of American Punk Rock 1980-1986" is interesting, for one, because it's about bands whose music railed against all the mindless rock excesses satirized by "Spinal Tap." Yet here it is presented in a neat and very familiar package that is the contemporary documentary basically a Cliff's Notes summary told with MTV editing. This is standard work, but the filmmakers made the correct decision to let it be told by the musicians and artists it's about. For a movement about an alternative voice, the mouthpiece is important.
The movie is also structured well, giving the history city by city, showing how the hard-core scene spread like a truth, or a contagion, depending on your point of view. Interviewees are major stars, like Henry Rollins of Black Flag, Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat and legions of their contemporaries, some of whom are Richmonders. Of course Fist City, as it is known in some circles, gets name-dropped: They say the Civil War is still news here. So is punk rock. Greta Brinkman, Richard "Crispy" Cranmer of White Cross and Dave Brockie of Death Piggy and GWAR are a few locals who weigh in.
The good of "American Hardcore" is that it presents the subject as lived by the participants. You get a well-defined sense of why they shared a love of fast power chords and a hatred of Ronald Reagan. The bad is that there is no bigger picture. Sometimes the inspiration and impact of a time are beyond the people who lived it. "American Hardcore" is not the last word on punk, but it's a decent starting point. (R) *** S